Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Trumping along

It is interesting, at least to me, that I have received more “negative feedback” from the few words I’ve expended on Donald Trump, than on any topic I have touched in the history of this little blogue. I have, in addition to quick abuse, received long anguished letters from several people who say they had been following me for years, in mainstream media and out, and were now parting ways. A couple of correspondents regretted there was no way to cancel their free rides. I have been effectively and repeatedly accused of “elitism,” which seems to replace treason as the crime most egregious in a democratic polity.

Have I sneered at ye Donald? Not as much as I sneered at e.g. Barack Hussein Obama Soebarkah, when he was rising to power. And one of my points against him was that he is mesmerizing, even when he is talking rot.

Do I consider myself superior to Trump? Not in real estate holdings. Do I think he has the emotional make-up of a nine-year-old child, but the intellectual equipment of a lad much younger? I suppose. Do I count him dangerously vulgar? Yes. Am I an elitist?

You betcha. The odd thing is, I’ve been confessing to elitism for as many decades as I can count on the fingers of one hand, using the index of the other. Did my critics not notice? Can they find an instance when I have spoken well of populism? Why wouldn’t I be opposed to this populist blowhard?

Verily, I think everybody should be elitist, as much as they are able. We should all be trying to raise the tone of our public life. We should all learn to disparage what is low, and praise what is higher in our human nature, such as it is.

The populist reader, I observe, might agree with you nine cases in ten, but if you disagree once, you are finished. In other words, he is not open to the possibility of education, or independent thought. Trump seems to satisfy his natural impulses.

While it is difficult to discern any principles from the verbal circuities of this nightfall loon, Trump drops hints that he is against everything I am for, and for everything I’m against. Why then should I support him? Because he might win the election? Because, if he doesn’t, some Democrat might win?

It is not my fault if Americans are reduced by the weight of history to the kind of choices people made on the Eastern Front of the last World War — where “none of the above” could have won any poll.

If for no other reason, I would prefer Cruz because I can follow much of what he says. There is little left of Cicero, in the rhetoric of the Republic, but Cruz does not speak in a stream of over-spontaneous coordinate clauses with loose or missing connectives, and without the graded pauses where one might intuitively supply a comma, or semi-colon, or stop, or even a mark of exclamation, into the riverrun of drivel.

*

Rhetoric is important. Read the early prose of Ennius, or of Chaucer, and gentle reader will discover that they are incomprehensible. It took centuries for the Romans and the English respectively to master the means to conversational expression that could have meaning if transcribed; that did not entirely depend upon grunts and gestures. How soon it is lost!

The verse of both ancient poets is disciplined and focused by metrical regularity. Without this, they go right off the rails. Prose rhythm, and with it reliably ordered civilization, comes always later in the day.

Rhetoric grows from nature and experience, from out of the poetic heart of every human language. God gave us speech, not only to communicate, but to construct a civil life. He expects us, gradually by an aesthetic path, to master logic and consistency. And then, He expects us to maintain it.

The only possible answer, in our political crisis, is to insist that all candidates for public office speak exclusively in metrically-regulated verse, for the foreseeable future; by preference in ecclesiastical Latin. “Trumping” (it is a colloquialism of the English nursery) should be reserved for consenting adults, out of sight and scent.

We must rebuild from barbarity again.

The new idealism

“Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health, until death do you part?”

“Ideally, yes.”

“And do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health, until death do you part?”

“Yes, in principle.”

“Then I join you in official matrimony subject to the laws of the Province of Ontario, and the most recent pronouncements of the Holy See.”

Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini, &c.

*

Now, strictly speaking, under Ontario law, there are no longer such things as man, woman, husband, wife, (father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, &c), so the form may be contested in the courts eventually. Then perhaps: “Do you take this person to be your lawfully wedded spouse?”

*

Certainly the last time I attended a wedding in a Catholic church, the priest (a Basilian) substituted the word “person” for each party, although it seemed to me that one was male and the other female, and they were dressed in the contrasting, “wedding cake” manner.

After the administration of the Sacrament, if indeed it was administered, the biological mother of the soi-disant “bride” had tears in her eyes. She said, “I’m so glad N. and M. decided to have a traditional wedding in the old way. That’s what the Church is for.”

Another attendee, known to me at least as a good drinking companion, though not in any sense a Christian, approached me all smiles with his wife, mistress, or partner, whom I had not previously met. (How odd this gentleman looked in a suit. How strangely “normal” the woman looked beside him.)

In his benevolence, he warned her that I am some kind of Roman dinosaur.

“I’m not a Catholic,” she said, cheerfully. … “But I love your pope!”

Amoris Laetitia

A good way to cultivate popularity, in politics or religion, is to preach constantly against the sins to which we are not tempted. There may have been a time when people were tempted to be censorious of flagrantly public homosexuals, for instance, or remarried divorcées. This is not that time. To bring down the wrath of the Almighty on those who are censorious is, in our situation, playing to the gallery.

There may have been instances when priests got rough on sinners in the Confessional. But to say that The Box should not be “a torture chamber” is rather odd, at the present day. Unless, or course, one is feeding upon the Hollywood fantasia, that the Church is synonymous with the Spanish Inquisition. In which case, such remarks get a round of cheers.

It is no wonder to me that Pope Francis is at least mildly popular, apparently among every group except “traditional Catholics.” He says what everyone else wants to hear. We, for our part, are a small minority, even among the minority who care what the pope says.

Consider, for instance, the release of the apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, yesterday. (A title I would have avoided, in Latin, for fear it might be translated, “The Joy of Sex.”) By the secular media, it was almost ignored. I did not notice any item about it “trending” on any news aggregator site. If, as our friends at Rorate Caeli suggest, the document is “a catastrophe,” then it is a catastrophe that no one will notice, like a massacre in southern Sudan. For the victims it might be a big issue, and for the perpetrators a big win, but for the world outside our sudanized Church, it is no great bother.

So the popularity of the pope should be taken as no grave threat, even among those who are often (and the some who are always) appalled by him. If he can’t make the “top ten” of the BBC, even on a Vatican red-letter day, it will all wash over. Two thousand years of excitement has breezed through our ecclesiastical quarters, leaving dust that the invisible janitor later sweeps away.

The document is 264 pages. Muffins will be served to those who reach the end. Few popes have been windier (I can think of none), and most of the document is, joy to tell, perfectly orthodox. It has been celebrated already in the Catholic Herald as a theological “kitchen sink.” Beauty has been spotted in some passages, by several papal apologists, though I note they are those in which His Holiness is wordily echoing scripture and past teachings.

I find no crisp point, no particular reason for the document, except that it was expected after the recent synods. I’d have been happier with a one-page exhortation, saying now we have learnt why, in the past, the Church was not governed by episcopal synods.

The worst fears of “traditionalists” (i.e. faithful Catholics) — that the pope would open the gate to Communion for persons in various “irregular unions” — has not been realized. He has merely tupped the latch so others may let them in. Twice the question seems to be approached, in the eighth chapter, but in both cases it is funked, or rather, deferred to footnotes which hint that the matter was avoided by Evangelium Gaudium in another way.

We should rejoice in this: there has been no explicit breach of the immortal doctrine. After three years we can be fairly sure this pope does not do that sort of thing. (Some tried, and their memories are not happy ones.)

On the other hand, we should weep at the sentence, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the Sacraments,” inserted into one of those footnotes with no further explanation.

My question would be, “What the devil did you mean by that?” (To which my answer would be, he tupped the latch.)

An Apostolic Exhortation ranks below an Encyclical. And a footnote in an Apostolic Exhortation ranks below the text, in type size. But that sentence is just what every liberal progressive wanted, and they have it now to whistle in the winds.

Many in these “irregular unions” do not now hesitate to take Communion, and priests do not hesitate to avoid confronting them. On both sides, this shows how little “the cracker” (Donald Trump’s expression) means to them, except as a form of talisman, with magic powers to bring good luck, good health, and improved self-regard. (Chinese fortune cookies promise as much.) Or as the pope puts it, “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

There is a serious confusion here between the weak in power, and the weak in morals.

It was the difference between such a talisman, and the Body and Blood of Christ, that needed some explaining to our contemporaries. Once grasped, it will be understood why one does not approach the rail (if indeed your church still has one) in a state of mortal sin — at any time, or in any culture.

There are vague indications that vexed questions of “pastoral practice” will or should be devolved to local churches, sensitive as they are to local sensitivities. Some cultures, such as ours, are much more accommodating to adultery and perversion than other cultures, elsewhere. That is why the mission of the Church has always been to change some cultures.

It is why, if I may contradict the pope directly, Christian virtue has not been upheld as some unattainable ideal, but actually recommended in practice, with graduated penalties for Catholic non-observers. Of course we fail to become perfect. But the idea is not to make excuses; the idea is to make a stand. (Indeed, that is what “apostolic exhortations” are supposed to be for.)

“It can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.”

While the distinction between objective mortal sin and subjective intention is admitted, this is petrol he is sprinkling in current circumstances. Even low-information Catholics know darn well that Matrimony is a Sacrament; and Protestants, too, have the general idea. We are not Gauguin maids in antediluvian Polynesia.

It can indeed simply be said, and has always been said by Holy Church, with innocent simplicity, that mortal sin is mortally sinful, so once again I think the pope must be corrected. Men, including my heroes Thomas More and John Fisher, went to the block for such simple assertions as the indissolubility of marriage. Does the Holy Father now propose to decanonize half our saints and all our martyrs?

I quoted that passage, however, not because I sniff rather twisted theology (and logic), but as an example of the “progressivism” I have categorically condemned, even on this website, passim. The notion that something once true is now dated, is a false notion. If it was true then, it is true now. If it is true now, it was true then. The truth does not “evolve” in this way.

If the age is corrupt, we fight the corruption; we do not try to assimilate it.

Panama papers

Politics I have been avoiding since Holy Week began: I’d meant to give them up for Lent. (“Politics” are a plural.) I remembered, however, to give up returning phone calls, and paying bills. Now it appears that they are still there. It is in the nature of our society in its current, badly fallen form, that you cannot get away from politics, and must participate even to defend the few rights you retain. With the help of a little modest technology, our bureaucracies now enjoy powers of diurnal intrusion unprecedented in the history of the world. There is no place to hide from them any more, not even Panama.

On the face of it, we might find a certain satisfaction in reading news of an enormous Internet breach, that has exposed thousands of the rich and famous. The electronic “papers” — millions of “pages” — were hacked the other day from Mossack Fonseca, one law firm in Panama City. We are left wondering what other lawyers are flourishing in that town.

A broad selection of the sort of people I despise anyway (in an affectionate Christian way, of course) now have their laundry aired — rock stars, plutocrats, populists, and the miscellaneous stinking rich. Alike, they were trying to avoid crushing taxes. And doing so legally, for the most part, for loopholes exist in every tax system to accommodate insiders and their friends. And these can only be closed gradually, as new and better loopholes are invented.

My sympathies in this case are with the rich. They carry vastly more than their share of the income tax burden — the “top 1 percent” already pay nearly half the total haul in USA and Canada. Any politician who says “the rich aren’t paying their share” is a bald liar. Though it is true, they’d be paying still more without their dodges.

This is how the world works, get used to it, my mama said. I cannot imagine a human society in which there are no rich and powerful. Nor can I imagine one in which they are not taking care of their own interests. The most that can be done by political intervention is to transfer the wealth, from persons out of favour to persons now in — adding multiple new layers of injustice in the process, while promoting Envy and other Deadly Sins.

To my mind, the rich are not a problem. That is because they can take care of themselves. Even without their help, the rest of us “99 percent” could easily take care of each other.

My plan, incidentally, is a little like Ted Cruz’s. It is to simplify the income tax system by firing almost everyone in the Revenue Department, and making the payments voluntary. The government would record what everyone paid, and make this information freely available. Instead of those boring tax forms, they could mail a colour catalogue, with all the welfare programmes prettily laid out, so the citizen could earmark every dollar. We might even get more money out of the rich that way; for count on it, they are as vain as we are. Give them better opportunities to flaunt it. He who pays most for any given boondoggle, gets his name put on it, &c.

It wouldn’t really matter if some of them were misers who didn’t give a moulting aardvark for what anybody thought. They’d still have to do something with their money, and they might as well be doing it here instead of Panama. They could be productively investing it, for instance, instead of shooting it down some bottomless administrative hole.

Meanwhile, the politician with his pet spending scheme can go out to the public and beg. And if it’s a permanent scheme, he can keep begging, year after year. Let everyone who wants it pay, pay, pay. And let everything that has had it’s season die, die, die away.

(I’m not naïve. I would also have a flat sales tax to cover the essentials: cops, courts, soldiers, and retiring the national debt.)

Of course, I must think like this because I am some backward, reactionary Catholic and Christian. We favour civic freedom. Our doctrine, shared with Jews and Buddhists, is that people should be encouraged to do the right thing, and compelled by law only in the most extreme cases. Whereas, the contrary doctrine, held by liberal progressives and Muslim terrorists, is that people should be compelled to do every little thing. Sometimes these positions are labelled respectively “Right” and “Left,” but really it is the difference between good and evil.

Yes, now that I think of it: Vote for me.

Spiritual asthenia

We have, for the purposes of everyday life up here in the High Doganate, made a distinction between sloth and acedia. Either might be considered idle, but where the first is closer to philosophy, the second is farther away. I convict the whole living world of acedia, except perhaps some obscure patches in the mountains somewhere.

It often takes the form of “busy work.” I’d say about four in five of those actually employed, in this cold northwestern region of former Christendom, are doing things that shouldn’t be necessary, that don’t need doing, or that ought to be against the law. But they aren’t lazy. Some are working hard.

This proportion (four in five) corresponds to the number whose jobs could easily be sent offshore, or done by machines; and therefore are being exported or mechanized. (Meanwhile we import people for the jobs that need doing.) Our economy is based on acedia, not sloth.

My title today may sound a little grand, except to those who read the New Testament in the original Greek, or other classical types. I propose to travel, by the shortest route, from acedia to asthenia.

Asthenia could be translated “weakness” in many contexts — debility; loss of vital power — but wouldn’t you know, the flavour is a little different from the modern term. By putting the word “spiritual” in front of it, we move at least slightly backward, towards the recovery of things as they are, and thus away from things as they aren’t.

To the ancients, asthenia wasn’t mere laziness. It was disease. By the modern medical fraternity it is being gradually rediscovered as a form of disease; but one they can do nothing for, because it is, after all, a spiritual condition, and modern medicine won’t go there. But modern psychology will, and has gone, with the invention of the term “neurasthenia,” which so far as I can see adds nothing but a syllable.

Nietzsche, master of the neurasthenic pansies, is, I suspect, systematically misunderstood, on the assumption that he is advocating, as opposed to diagnosing, our nihilism. German thinkers often skim through our hair in this way, without leaving intellectual wounds.

Over at seminary, I have my poor beleaguered charges reading Hermann Broch (1886–1951), whose Death of Virgil (and other poetical novels) confuse the English reader, and German ones, too, because we forget he might be Catholic. (He was, albeit subtle about it.) He, too, was studying spiritual asthenia, chiefly through creative art. But in a never-completed academic treatise entitled Massenpsychologie (published anyway in Zurich, after his death) he tried to be scientific. Unlike others who traded in mass psychology (Elias Canetti; Ortega y Gasset; Wilhelm Reich for that matter) he eschews material explanations of a spiritual condition.

The mass-man can be addressed only to the extent he has ceased to be fully human. He has become instead a product of nation, race, class, whatever. He is interchangeable, like industrial parts. He resonates on precisely the same frequencies as everyone around him. The modern crowd is not a plurality of individual cells, as in a whole body; it is a singular thing. It is more like dust, and can be whipped into dustdevils.

All this could be filed under the heading of asthenia.

Broch was concerned chiefly with the German-speaking world, from which he came. (Viennese.) His overall view is larger, but he is focused on a political history which he takes from around 1880. That was about the time from which Hitler was coming, though the man himself was not yet born. Still, the wind out of Prussia was blowing, on the modern mass man, no longer anchored.

On men who were, in the New Testament sense, weak. (Not, most assuredly not, meek.) On the man who had lost his spiritual centre, thus his balance. Who could be blown about.

The temptation of evangelism today is to join the party; to blow men our way; to sweep them with a broom into our corner; to improve our demographic position, or slow the decline. But this is ineffective. We are reducing religion to politics — from a something to a nothing.

Rather, the metaphor should be damp them down; return them to the mud of their Creation, so they may live; free them from the weakness, the spiritual asthenia, that has made them slaves.

This has nothing to do with removing their shackles. For remove those, and they are still shackled, no longer to the earth but to the wind.

Mother Angelica

I wish that God would send us a few more Mother Angelicas. Now that the first one has surely gone to Heaven (from Alabama), and Mother Teresa (of Calcutta) is so long gone that she is scheduled for canonization in September, there is a discernible need for more Mothers of this sort. I mean, Mothers who don’t take any nonsense, even from liberal bishops, and perform miracles of fundraising and proselytization right before our eyes. Mothers who attract not only congregants to Holy Church, but nuns to holy convents, and priests to the sanctuaries, and more generally, get people praying, and acting, just as if they were Christians.

She (Mother Angelica), who died on Easter Sunday — born Rita Rizzo into a badly broken home with an abusive (if soon absent) father, and a mother given to clinical depression, plus “health issues” that would kill off any normal child — discovered early in life that having God on your side makes all the difference. It started with the nine days she devoted to a novena to get her deadly stomach pain cured. (It worked, of course.) Soon after she became Sister Mary Angelica of the Poor Clares. An Ohio girl, she was called (by God) to go found a nunnery in the heart of the ultraprotestant South, and naturally she obeyed. And then another monastery, and so forth.

Gentle reader may know her chiefly as the founder of the television network, EWTN. Her “media outreach” began with tapes of her spunky talks, sold with the baked goods to raise a spot of money. There were the usual tribulations associated with starting a broadcasting empire in a nunnery garage. One thing led to another, however, and now it is beaming Masses, Rosaries, major church events, and much Catholic instruction into a couple hundred million homes, quite around the planet. And this without ever stooping to the dissemination of filth, which was the means to success in most parallel cases.

I don’t watch television myself, but I know some people who do, and am assured that EWTN really does teach orthodox religion, or at least tries consistently to do so; that it has yet to be taken over by the liberals in human flesh, who (like the Devil) can never create anything, so focus on appropriating other people’s creations.

Like most other saint-grade Catholics, Mother Angelica was of the curious opinion that Faith could move mountains; and leaves a record of mountains moved.

There are many delicious anecdotes of her to be found by Google-searching the obituaries. Never having met her, I have none to add. Let us be content with my quoting just two of her remarks which, from this great distance, seem to bare her soul.

One was her explanation of why she did so poorly as a child at school. She said that she had difficulty remembering e.g. what the capitals were of the various United States, “because I was more curious about whether my mother had committed suicide that day.”

The other was her response to Archbishop Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles (retired, thank God), whose typically callow misrepresentation of the Real Presence she had rebutted point by point on air. When it was ill-advisedly insinuated that she was risking her control of her nunnery and her network by correcting him in this way, she replied: “I’ll blow the damn thing up before you get your hands on it.”

Now, this is precisely the attitude I recommend when dealing with that (human, all too human) part of the Catholic hierarchy that seems intent on replacing Jesus Christ with the worship of “progress”; and verily, liberals of all other sub-species. Correct them on points of doctrine and of fact in the plainest, untimidly public way, and don’t be afraid it will cost you.

It may, it probably will cost you, in my experience; but if one is sufficiently robust, the mountains may begin to rumble.

Mother Angelica was notoriously “indiscreet,” but discretion does not come into this. What does, is the determination to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and in the words of that wonderful old cliché, let the chips fall where they may.

The unknown good

Let it not be said that no truth is ever spoken in our Canadian House of Commons, notwithstanding the Party of Lies has been in power these last 148 years (9 months, and 4 days). On Maundy Thursday of this year, the Hon. Kevin Sorenson (Battle River-Crowfoot), rose to say:

“Mr Speaker, this weekend, around the world those of the Christian faith will celebrate Easter. Western civilization, our Parliamentary institutions, human rights, the Canadian Constitution, common law, criminal law, and le Code Civil all have deep roots in Christianity.

“Our traditions and cultures have evolved over time from the promise of a coming Messiah in the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. We are promised everlasting life when we put our faith in Jesus Christ. The struggles of our daily lives and the sacrifices that we make pale in comparison to the sacrifice of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. He died on the Cross at Calvary to pay for our sins and then rose from the grave to give us hope for our resurrection and eternal life.

“This weekend we celebrate the life and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, but even more we celebrate his victory over death.”

*

“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate famously asked. This was very droll.

I love old Pilate. I’m sure Jesus did, too, in his tough-love, Christian sort of way. Here was a man with plenty of guile, but also at some level, an humane administrator given half a chance, usually in control of his personal demons. At this key moment, it is remarkable how many, not only of droll lines, but of droll situations, have been captured by Saint John the Divine.

Or by Saint Luke: for instance, the little affair of the two administrators, as Pilate, discovering that Jesus is from Nazareth, thinks he can shunt Him off on the governor of Galilee. For that governor, Herod Antipas, happens to be in town. Herod, who does not know what to do with Him either, sends Jesus back. Neither could have wanted the Son of God to land in his jurisdiction.

We “just know” that given a choice of Jesus or Caiaphas, Pilate would rather take tea with Jesus. Early churchmen and mediaevals often saw it that way. Pilate is less than perfect, ahem, but he is a civilized man, and one may imagine him rolling his eyes at all the religious crazies, of whom he must be thinking, “this Jesus is hardly the worst.” The instinct to wash his hands is itself the mark of a good man. It is as if he already knows, in the Trotskyite vernacular, that he is getting put on “the wrong side of history.”

I have no idea how the Risen Lord must deal with gentlemen like Pilate. The Living Christ did, however, break His silence to have a few words with him. This, to me, seems to have some significance: that Pilate was not beyond speaking to. And in the words, “thou sayest,” Our Lord is speaking in Pilate’s own language of legality.

O poor Pilate, whose political office has blinded his eyes to Faith. Like the rich man, the man of power cannot afford to give up all he has. This saddens him; he must make compromises. He tries to squirm out of impossible situations. They are “above his pay grade,” or, he wishes they were. He gives the crowd the choice, Jesus or Barabbas. But he knows what crowds are like, once aroused. Pilate has instead given himself the choice of this choice; and finally he “is stuck with” the Crucifixion. He was no Judas, however; he wasn’t doing it for money and fame. He was only doing “what he had to do,” in the order of his blindness.

It is my belief that John, in his Gospel, fully apprehends the political “ironies” which each of the Synoptics has touched upon: the ironies, and with them, some of the implications, that otherwise must speak for themselves. I, at least, think the disciple that Jesus loved was, for all his virtues, ill-fitted for the first papacy.

John emphasizes the little paradoxes, the little twists, to carry a minor theme. This is the impossibility of “political solutions,” including, most pointedly, “democratic” political solutions. The others know this from Christ’s own lips, but John has it, too, from the deepest meditation: that Christ alone can save. Hence, paradoxically, he is the boldest of all the Apostles; and in his boldness at the foot of the Cross, the only survivor among them to old age.

*

John on Patmos with his eyes fixed on Heaven, faithfully transcribing what he has seen. That John, who is a small wooden statue standing as sentinel beside my bed: carved, I think, in the eastern Carpathians. His symbol is the chalice he is holding, which, like the figure, is tall and thin; John’s hand is cupped over the chalice. A world of meanings in that symbolic gesture; the peasant wood-carver successfully conveyed them.

It was sold to me by a Persian junk dealer, many years ago. He had no idea what it was or from where it had come. My sense of its provenance is from my own researches.

The sight of it reminds me there are no political solutions. We think there are, sometimes; sometimes we think this even up here in the High Doganate. We think, at least we can pass them off. Someone can be elected “to take care of it”; someone will know what to do. But no one knows.

And it is the man who says, “I know what to do,” while he is running for political office, who scares me. The Mister Fix It who will make us all great again. When, in reality, in the conditions that pertain to this planet, we are all going to die. Yet it is also pointless to fear: for what will happen, will happen.

*

Thomas Traherne: “News from a forrein Country came, / as if my Treasure and my Wealth lay there: / So much it did my Heart Enflame. …”

“Few will believ the Soul to be infinit,” the same poet wrote in his Centuries of meditations, “yet Infinit is the first Thing which is naturaly Known. Bounds and Limits are Discerned only in a Secondary maner. Suppose a Man were Born Deaf and Blind. By the very feeling of His Soul He apprehends infinit about Him, infinit Space, infinit Darkness. He thinks not of Wall or Limits till He feels them and is stopt by them. …”

The “news” of this Easter season comes only to one thing: that, from all the “wall or limits” of this world, He is risen.

Christ hither & away

This day, apparently for the last time until anno 2157, is both Lady Day and Good Friday. Our pre-modern ancestors, and those non-modern who walk the earth today, celebrate this Conjunction with our fast. For as this link explains (here), the 25th of March has been taken for the historical date of the Annunciation to Mary, and too, of Christ’s Crucifixion thirty-three years later. The two events are intwined, in doctrine as in mystical contemplation. In this moment we see something whole, which is perhaps lost on many.

On ðone fif ond twentegðan dæg þæs monðes com Gabrihel ærest to Sancta Marian mid Godes ærende, ond on ðone dæg Sancta Maria wæs eacen geworden on Nazareth ðære ceastre þurh þæs engles word ond þurh hire earena gehyrnesse, swa þas treowa ðonne hi blostmiað þurh þæs windes blæd. …

This is quoted from the Old English Martyrology, in the link.

“Through the hearing of her ears, like trees when they blossom at the blowing of the wind. …”

The coming days

In the grim days, when I was an overpaid prisoner in a newspaper chain, writing daily columns on matters of no importance as member of the chain gang, there were breaks. One was granted annual leave, of five weeks in my case. One was even allowed to choose which weeks, subject to negotiation with one’s editorial keepers. Invariably I chose Easter: partly because that would be spring after the long Canadian winter, and partly because it would be Easter. I would write my dangerously orthodox Easter blunderbuss (in my role as “the token Christian”), then make off. Through Lent, I would be counting down the days to my coming furlough. For I have always hated writing, but hated writing for newspapers most of all.

Five weeks is a long, an excessive time in modern life. There could be five Super Tuesdays in that period. Governments might rise or fall, with the pundit nowhere to be heard. His readers might be at a loss what to think, for the duration. In my other role, as “the token conservative,” I had several readers, who would pepper me with emails saying, “Hurry back!” This was kind, but I would smile, because I was in no hurry. Other members of the chain gang could carry on the brutal heavy work of removing the foundations of Western Civ, to build with this stone the grand prison maze of our Dictatorship of Relativism. I would be out in the park, feeding sparrows.

As I will be, soon again, for I intend to take not five weeks (that would be excessive) but Holy Week to start, then Easter Week, too, for a kind of vacation. This takes us, I believe, to April 4th. Let gentle reader be assured that I need it. I shall try to catch up with correspondence in this time (I keep falling badly behind), but give no guarantees for that, either.

I am blessed with, I think, more readers than I had as a chain-gang hack — more widely spread, and on balance, more discerning. I am indebted to a few of them for keeping me in food. I ought to be grateful, and in fact, I am, and wish them all a hard Fast and then a blesséd Feast, as we silently approach the Crucifixion of Our Lord, and His unimaginable Resurrection.

Stillness within the panic

I write today about Ratzinger over at Catholic Thing (here). He is back in the news, quite modestly, and I seize on almost any chance to echo my hero of the last forty years. Over here, in this Idleposting, let me add what I had no space for, though little enough it adds. Apart from reading Ratzinger, whose Collected Works are now beginning to appear in English (see here), there is his example. To know, or begin to know a priest, one might say, is to watch him say a Low Mass, ideally in the most adverse circumstances. (Vidi.) But that is a personal judgement, from a man who must himself be allowing his attention to wander in the Mass. The alternative is to observe the priest over time, ideally over a long time, in the role dictated by his vows.

There is general agreement among most of my correspondents that we are desperately in need of a man like — of men and women like — Ratzinger in our living Church. This is not necessarily a critique of Bergoglio; and a comparison that might be impertinent is more likely to be irrelevant in this case. Plutarch drew comparisons and contrasts in parallel lives — who am I to judge Plutarch? — but comparisons often lead us astray. They emphasize what is unique in each respective individual, at the expense of virtues in him that may be universal.

And Ratzinger is unquestionably a Bavarian, and a pianist who adores Mozart and Schubert. He is a book-lover, too, in a way separate from his propensity for reading and study; he is “aesthetically” at home in libraries. As pope, he was the opposite of Wojtyla in his shyness and privacy, and with this we appreciate the flavour of his modesty (which is the universal virtue). Though very disciplined, and brave, one could almost see him flinching from the stands he had to make. He did not enjoy controversy. All these things are virtues, in their way, and virtues that happen to appeal to me, but they are not “universal” virtues. I mentioned the acknowledged saint, Wojtyla, to suggest some painterly shading: there are aspects of “personality” endowed by God, that remain through self-denial; that Lord Who created a world of extraordinary, seated variety, and must have done so to a purpose.

But there are simple and universal virtues, in which all may partake. Let me give an example of one, reflected in Ratzinger’s intellectual life.

He was determined to see things whole. His patience and caution and prudence are guided, consistently, to that end; his discipline prevents him from being cute or glib. This is evident in the interview with the Jesuit, Jacques Servais, or that portion of it translated into Italian in the Milan newspaper, Avvenire (here), currently making minor news. It is in Ratzinger’s nature to review events of the last fifty years in the light of the last five hundred: he cannot be satisfied with the immediate. Nor did he ever respond in the “media” way, to events of the last five hours or five days. First, he examines.

This is precisely the virtue — prudence in its essential form — that seems most absent from contemporary life. It can be made to account even for our atheism, or “agnosticism,” which is by nature a response to passing events. I often think recklessness is not the opposite of prudence; rather, glibness is the vice. The recklessness is the product of our glibness.

We, today, as men in all ages, cannot do without the anchoring of faith, which begins in an attachment to the unchanging. The detachment from “breaking news” follows from this. I pass by the profound theological observation, that underlies all faith — that it originates in the grace of God, not in some human intention — only because I am giving an external description. A man of any culture — East or West — who is not by desire rooted in the unchanging, is not rooted at all. He is not prepared to see things whole, when he deals as he must with what is constantly changing. He is adrift in a world liquid and not only uncharted, but unchartable.

Ratzinger, especially as Pope Benedict XVI, set a wonderful example for us, of freedom from the “breaking news.” To my mind it is exhibited at its best in such documents as Summorum Pontificum, a masterpiece of careful construction, in which the Old Mass was restored to common access, without upsetting the current order. In answering to a grievance from one side, he did not give grievance to the other, and it took extraordinary skill to avoid doing so. He then turned his full attention to completing the task of removing demonstrable defects in the wording of the New Mass. Only good was accomplished.

He did not “take sides.” Rather he kept his attention firmly on the good that either side must, at its best, intend to serve. He had no choice, in his office, but to play ecclesiastical statesman, but with a diplomacy fixed upon the cause of the Holy.

To take responsibility in this way — to know in one’s heart, and also on one’s lips, that one must finally serve the common interest beneath and beyond any faction’s reach — requires just this anchoring in what is changeless. It has been the wisdom of Holy Church herself, confronted by so many distractions, through the last twenty centuries or so.

We are living in a time when often it seems even the Barque of Peter has slipped her moorings. Yet we know by the promise of Christ that this cannot be so. It is incumbent upon us at just such times to avoid the panic that we find all around. I admire Ratzinger for his splendid example, of how to remain still and upright when the barque is tilting in the sea.

Patricius

[Lazily brought forward, and only slightly revised,
from something I wrote a couple of years ago.]

*

Barely three centuries have passed since English travellers in Ireland noticed the wearing of “shamroges” in “vulgar superstitious” displays of patriotism on the 17th of March. These, along with “excess in liquor,” and other inducements to debauchery, are recorded with finely jaundiced Protestant sobriety. The notion that the Saint had used a sprig of trefoil grass (there is some dispute over which clover species) to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, is apparently more recent than that. The accretion of folk customs and beliefs about the fifth-century Saint Patrick began, it seems, within a century of his death, in the marvel-laden hagiography of Muirchu. By now he is taken for a creature of legend. The Disney touch was added in America.

We have two documents, however, from Patrick’s own hand, that stand up to every reasonable critical test as contemporary with him. And they ring in a voice that is unmistakably that of a real man. The first is his Confession, rather in the spirit of Augustine’s, though shorter; the second his Letter, of exhortation “to the soldiers of Coroticus” — evidently a Pictish or other warlord from the “Scottish” wilds (there was no Scotland then), with fallen Christians in his train. Breathing through these documents is precisely the Catholicism that has been taught down to this day, infused with scriptural and credal references that any educated Catholic would recognize.

“Patrick the sinner, verily, unlearned: and I am a bishop, appointed by God through His Church, in Ireland. I most certainly deem that I have received what I am from God. And so do I live, here, among the barbarians, a stranger and an exile, for the love of God. He shall be witness that this is so. It is not that I want to speak so harshly and so roughly, but I am compelled. …”

So the Letter begins, of this latter-day Roman from Britannia, called to become one of the three major patrons of Ireland (along with Saint Brigid of Kildare, and Saint Columba the Abbot), among the many Irish apostles. Through his own words we may form a picture of his tasks, and glimpse his real accomplishment in the conversion of thousands, on an island now floating in distant time. But his words are vivid, and that island draws close as we read him: that Ireland which becomes a nursery of saints, and missionaries for the conversion of western Europe. All this remarkable work was done through men and women, utterly convinced of the truth in what they carried, and prepared to witness that truth to death.

The spirit of parading nationalism and chauvinism is as alien to the character of Patrick, as our times are alien to his. The world was nevertheless the world, back then, and the ruthless play of power was as common. The distinction between a king and a pirate was a subtle one, as the distinction between a citizen and a slave.

Well, this is so today, though we are ever more blinded to the plain truth by our material comforts, enmired as we are in virtual bread and circuses.

The task of Patrick was to free the inhabitants of that island, that beautiful Ireland, from the ancient despotic rule of heathenism; to show them whose sons they really were. He did this through his own person — that person quoted, above. He was a true bishop, whether or not the first in the succession of Armagh.

Let us lift that sleeve of green-tainted ale, in the usual celebration; and spill it over our own heads in the hope that it may bring us to our senses. For I think our task for this day is to forget all the vanity of “Ireland,” and remember the cause of Saint Patrick, instead.

Super endless Tuesday

My curmudgeonly instinct is to dash to the support of the Republican Establishment. This would be easier to find if anyone would admit to belonging. More, I think, advertise their membership in the KKK. I am used to being a minority of one; used to supporting defunct causes. But the Republican Establishment is supposed to have living members, so where are they?

By a course of reasoning, I guessed that everyone who thinks Trump is “vulgar” must secretly participate. I have told gentle reader that I share this view, and thus await my invitation to a Country Club. Except, further inquiry reveals that entry is debarred to those previously blackballed by the Tea Party, who seem to have eaten all the Grand Old Partiers during the last couple of election cycles. This makes them (on Idi Amin premisses) the Establishment today. That is certainly what poor Mr Rubio, present à l’heure du goûter short years ago, discovered this time around. Yesterday’s disestablishmentarian somehow got pushed in, and now carries the mark of Cain forever.

My reasons for thinking “Little Donnie” a vulgar man are, however, not quite aligned. I hardly objected on this ground to (for instance) his proposal that supporters punch hecklers in the face (and he would pay their lawyers’ fees). Rhetorical thuggery of this sort can be “common,” but among the elegant and refined we have also a long history of chivalry and duelling. The candidate was not being vulgar in this case, rather girlish and fairy: he should have offered to punch them himself (and pay his own frigging law bills).

To me, skyscrapers are vulgar. Anything called a Trump Tower is in execrable taste. I have toured with Melania (via Fox News) the interior of the sprawling apartment in Manhattan, and it is what I call “Louis XXXIInd.” The furnishings appal me. The mansion in Palm Springs is probably worse. I haven’t read Trump’s various memoirs, but from the bits I’ve seen quoted — boasting of his sexual conquests — I can see he is no gentleman. That the three layers of his family speak well of him does not surprise me: his sons are clones, and the rest must be in fear of his lawyers.

His manner of public speaking clinches my argument: he says no coherent thing. Not one sentence follows from another, even when, by accident, they parse. Such a spray of non sequiturs (non sequuntur?) shows he nowhere received an elementary education. Granted, other politicians do that, too, but none with such ebullience. He presents no policies beyond “win, win, win,” but more to the point, no principles. (I am not counting “deport eleven million people” as a policy.)

Is he another Hitler? Of course not. Hitler’s mother wasn’t Scotch. And he is more Berlusconi than Mussolini. Perhaps, indeed, the American electorate is on to something the Italians learnt, by trial and error. If you elect, consistently, as Americans are now doing, the biggest jerk in sight, eventually the bureaucracy becomes dysfunctional, and people can get on with their lives.

On the liberal principle, of blaming the victim, Trump is held responsible for organized leftist attempts to foment violence at his rallies. I’ll have none of that: they’d be there even if the cissy hadn’t told others to punch them. If he wins the general election, or alternatively if he loses, there may be riots across the USA. But these won’t be his fault. I have no sympathy with rioters, paid or unpaid: spare the lathi and spoil the child. True, Trump has contributed to the decline in public morals, but he is only one clump of snow in the vast avalanche of Western Civ, beyond cause or symptom.

A correspondent, who signs himself Denis the Carthusian (from somewhere in Wisconsin, I think), has considered the matter deeply. He has a scheme to improve upon the Italian strategy, that would contain the violence before it spreads through the streets:

“My proposal for ‘electing’ a president is to have the various candidates duel with pistols. Last man (or woman) standing wins. We could use the same method for senators, congressmen, governors, too. … Just think how much better off a country would be with so many less politicians; how much money would be saved, rather than wasted on campaigning; how few would even step forward.”

Novels, novels

On the topic of novels, a very good one has fallen into my hands, by a dear friend, who is crazy, in all the right ways. The book is entitled, Israel Madigan. It is by Robert Eady, and good luck finding it, for the publisher is small, Catholic, and not pushy. (One might start trying, here.)

Anita Brookner died last Thursday, it was announced this morning in the Daily Telegraph. I mention this because she was the opposite of Mr Eady. Her desolate novels, of lonely spinster women like herself, and the occasional lonely man, are refined and crisp. They expound, with genius, the subtle acts of betrayal, that make life more interesting. These include the betrayals of nature, for people once young grow old and die. She makes unhappiness more attractive than it might otherwise be. Nothing memorable seems to happen in these novels, but the prose is so lucid, so patiently understated; the psychological tension so close to that of the examined life; that one is compelled forward. Miss Brookner was a Freudian, and I would deduce an atheist; punctiliously honest, and very well-read. Naturally, she won the Booker Prize, for her worst novel. This, too, was a kind of betrayal.

Both authors came late to writing novels. In Brookner’s case it was a “displacement activity,” from a quietly successful career as art historian and instructor in the Courtauld. She seems to have needed something to do with her free time, to avoid going mad; her works are remarkably tasteful. She turned them out annually for a long time, starting at age fifty-three.

Whereas Eady, whose second novel this is (the first was, The Octave of All Souls, same publisher, 2013), has started later still, after a life of dayjobs, and as a disregarded poet. He has also been the author of magnificent letters to the editors of various defunct or soon-to-be-defunct newspapers, the best of which should be gathered in a collection. These would be those the editors did not publish, because they were offensive in all the right ways. Definitely Catholic; and one might say, rightwing.

He is as far from Anita Brookner as, say, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or Flannery O’Connor, and in the same approximate direction. But his narrative world is that of a small, and beloved, Ontario town, poetically re-imagined. It is because he can capture the serenity and goodness in such a place, that his depictions of black evil are so effective. Men and women betray each other, subtly or not; but Eady is able to show that they also betray God, subtly or starkly. He is deeply insightful of the criminal mind, and of a selfishness which does not recognize subtle restraints. He is unmodern in not trying to excuse it.

This is what I have found exhilarating in both of Eady’s novels; for there are few authors who can capture sanctity; fewer who can capture demonry, too; and it is hard to think of another alive who can capture their interaction — in warfare. Instead we get cartoons; we get glib Punch and Judy, downsized to the politically correct. Eady, by contrast, goes bravely where only angels would not fear to tread.

To raise as protagonist and heroine a (“former”) prostitute, and gangster’s moll; to cast her in the avenging role of the “deuterocanonical” Judith; to enter into the very tent of Holofernes; is at least ambitious. To tell the story through the eyes of a haplessly observant, ex-convict rubby-dubby, and in the reactions of a simple Catholic priest, lifts the burden higher. To make the stakes a small bastard child, and weaponize the power of his mother’s love, is to pass beyond the boundary of what is conventionally attempted in modern fiction. I think Eady pulls it off.

But this is a novel that is not self-regarding. Nor does it lack a convincing plot. It is not shy or pixie, either. The author is acquainted not merely with the existence, but with the demands of literature, in high story-telling; but conservative in adherence to the realistic genre. The characters are all sharply distinct people; no extra-terrestrials are admitted, except through the portals of the narrator’s visions, which are tightly delineated. Eady is intent upon grabbing gentle reader’s lapels, and telling him something; something he wasn’t expecting to hear. The experience is cathartic.

I do not think this work will win the Booker, however. For it lacks effeteness, and will take too long to stale.