Essays in Idleness


Lay sermon

What follows, on this Feast of Christ the King, is the slightly edited and contracted text of a “talk” I gave four years ago, in the “Scavi” of Saint Patrick’s Basilica at Ottawa. It was a pleasant evening, as I recall. Not one heckler, for a change, though many young people out from the city’s several universities, who were aware of me as the token “conservative” columnist on the editorial page of the Ottawa Citizen newspaper: the one whose job seemed to consist of making nice liberal people, each morning, sleepily munching breakfast at the start of busy days, suddenly spit up their cornflakes. The questions I was asked afterwards were intelligent and genuine, and I was amazed to be so well received by these college students once I stepped outside. What a contrast to the brownshirt demonstration one must expect if speaking at, for instance, the University of Ottawa! Where, notoriously, the slightest deviation from the current official party line will be drowned out by the resident chorus of howler monkeys.

My motto for this talk, incidentally, came from Saint Thomas More: “For in man reason ought to reign like a king, and it does reign when it makes itself loyally subject to the faith, and serves God.”


Let me begin by warning my audience that some of the things I say this evening may be controversial. At least, I hope they will be. In the event, I take my courage from Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. He is said to have told a confidante that, “Whenever I make a public statement, and it is not criticized, I have to examine my conscience.”

Saint Peter, a pope in Rome before him, is reported in the Gospels to have failed not once, but thrice in this respect. He was put in a position where he would have to make a very controversial remark, to the effect that he did, in fact, know Jesus personally. But noticing himself surrounded by a howling mob, out for blood, he decided the politic thing would be to pretend he was someone else.

We gather from the same account that he was rather seized by conscience after employing this stratagem. The denial of Christ would not count in any Catholic view of the universe as a minor oversight, or venial sin. It would instead go to the heart of what our Lord is, in His Triune majesty — the fact that Christ is Son of God the Father, even while he is Son of Man; and Very God, even in the kenosis or self-emptying of his coming down from heaven.

This goes to the heart of what we are: God’s creatures. For according to the latest inferences of natural philosophy, this is the same Creator God whom we encounter in physics at a date currently calculated to 13.7 billion years before the present, in the “Big Bang,” from which our universe issues, and time itself. That is, if we are to take Him not as a “god of the gaps,” in the neo-Darwinian sneer, but more singularly as God of the Singularities.

It is the same who, from out of the primaeval muck of this planet, raised life, as Lazarus — just a few of those billion years ago.

The same who formed man out of the materials of His creation, mysteriously in His own image — the day before yesterday, in biological or geological  terms.

The same who sent his Son, within historical memory, to be born in humility at Bethlehem — to live, teach, work miracles, exemplify — to suffer and to die — in an act of cosmic condescension, and redemptive mercy, that we are still trying to assimilate, or even begin to comprehend.

The same who, in the person of the Son, deigned to be Crucified on the mound of Golgotha by Jerusalem — and at the crossroads of the world. Who descended into Hell, then rose in Glory.

In the prophet Isaiah is a passage about Our Lord that I take as a pendant to the entire Old Testament:

And to old age I am he,
And to hoar hairs will I carry,
I have made, and I will bear,
Even I will carry, and will deliver.

For our purposes, as we try to look ahead, towards the end of the time in which we have lived and had our being, this is the same Christ who is living still. The same who reveals himself in the Apocalypse, radiant, and in the sound of many waters.

As Saint John reports from Patmos: “And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying, Fear not; I am the first and the last. … I am he that liveth, and was dead; and behold, I am alive for evermore, and have the keys of Hell and of Death.”

“Fear not” is one of the most carefully repeated messages of our New Testament, and in this backward glance upon the Church which He founded, Christ tells us, “Fear none of those things that you will suffer.”


So here we have walked into our first controversy, by asserting that the Catholic Christian account, of God, man, and the universe, is the correct one, and that the guiding principle of heroic action, which is never to deny Christ, should be obeyed. Saint Peter himself knew it would not do to deny Christ, as ditto our Holy Father today, and we in our hearts.

A very interesting thing happens in the upshot of Christ’s crucifixion, and let us for a moment follow where that leads. In faith and works, Saint Peter proceeded to Rome; as did other original disciples, to Rome and to the ends of the earth — all now imbued with the certainty that they must serve “unto this last.”

Now, Peter could hardly have been alone, in wishing to make himself scarce at the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth. For alongside Mary, there is only one disciple in the composition, at the feet of Christ on the Cross, and that is Saint John. The rest have all cut and run, rather than risk joining their master, on the next tree. How is it that, in the end, many years after that trial and execution, and with innumerable intervening opportunities to run and hide, each one goes willingly to his fate — through interrogation, torture, and death, as required — to affirm the same Master?

Peter himself, our first pope, ends up tacked to his own cross at Rome, hung upside down at his own request, the better to see his Redeemer. We retained his relics right under Saint Peter’s Basilica (then forgot they were there, then suddenly remembered) — the earthly throne of our Church is built upon them. “Upon that rock.”

Other bones were scattered, so far as I can follow in traditional accounts. Matthew was slain by sword in Ethiopia. Mark, dragged to death by horses through the streets of Alexandria. Luke, hanged in Greece. James, son of Zebedee, beheaded by the Romans at Jerusalem. James, the Just, tossed off the south-east pinnacle of the Temple at Jerusalem, and when he survived that, beaten to death with a club. Bartholomew, flayed alive in Armenia. Thomas, run through with a spear in India. Jude, shot up with arrows. Matthias, stoned then beheaded. And finally Paul, our “twelfth man” — beloved patron of all converts — tortured then beheaded at Rome.

Yes: the refusal to deny Christ has long been controversial.

The exception, perhaps suggesting that martyrdom is not always necessary, is Saint John — by tradition, and I suspect in actual fact, the author of our Apocalypse. He, uniquely among these first evangelists, died peacefully in his old age, though after many scrapes. His affirmation of Christ never faltered, as we have seen, even before the Resurrection. Nota bene.

Something must surely have happened to explain why all the rest of those good men, with intimate knowledge of Jesus’ earthly mission, and their own various ideas about what the term “Messiah” might mean — went from trying to save their own skins, to offering them up. And that something was the Resurrection itself: the Archimedean moment, the lever, that moved the whole world.


This is where we start, ourselves, in considering our own place in the world, in our own time. I am stressing the Resurrection, because I think without its light, we can make little sense of our mission. For without its light, the disciples themselves could make little sense.

I am not sceptical of that event, and see no reason why any Christian should be. To my own reasoning, suggested above, it is proven fact. Men may kill for an illusion, but they cannot wish only to die for one, in obscurity and excruciating pain. If the circumstantial details are in order, the only possible explanation of that strange Christian custom of accepting martyrdom, in preference to denying Christ, must be left to speak for itself.

The alternative argument I find lax: that if God really exists he would never have allowed a whopping lie like this to pass down the centuries, and become the very touchstone of faith, in by far the largest and most widely spread of all the world’s religions. That argument is glibly reversible. For the God who allowed that might well not exist.

“Modern biblical scholars” — by which I mean a procession of mostly Protestant biblical scholars, down the centuries immediately behind us, and especially since what is called the Enlightenment — have scourged the faithful. The very premiss of their work was, that the Traditions of the Church cannot be taken at face value. And while they may have begun by disputing Catholic claims alone, they had tacked all Christian claims across their table, by the 19th century.

As Catholics, we ourselves long accepted, and should continue to accept, the rôle of the “devil’s advocate,” in testing for mistakes; just as we invite secular medical doctors to examine miraculous claims at Lourdes. There is nothing that our faith in God requires us to hide. On the other hand, we must remind that there is a distinction between honest scepticism, which seeks the truth humbly, and an arrogant and destructively posturing scepticism that proceeds in a Humean circle, from the premiss that no miracle can ever happen, to the conclusion that no miracle ever did.

In reality, biblical scholarship has long been infected with this Humean spirit, and biblical scholars have often and even habitually inserted their theories into every blank space within each narrative, and between narratives, for the purpose of reinterpreting the content of the Gospels in what they imagine to be a more “scientific” and “objective” way. They take, in other words, what presents the image of Christ, and amend it in their own image, having appointed themselves “the gods of the gaps.” Except, to be fair, there were also many believers, who found their faith rewarded with some of the largest discoveries in the same field.

But I am not telling the history of Bible scholarship this evening, a road too long and winding even for the dimensions of a big fat book. I am concerned here only with the large and obvious.

To this day, if you go online, to Wikipedia or any other common source of spotty, unreliable, heavily biased information; or into standard reference books, edited to reflect currently received opinion — you will encounter again and again this smug little term, “modern scholarship.” As in: “People used to believe X, but thanks to modern scholarship we now think Y was much more probable, if not Z.” As opposed to: “Here are the arguments for X, Y, and Z, respectively.”

Built into that smug term is the notion, casually taught in our public schools, then drilled into freshmen in college — including many of the formerly Catholic colleges — that the New Testament is to be read as a kind of children’s book, full of fairy tales only children can believe; and that faith itself is “naïve” in its nature. Likewise, we are supposed to have outgrown the Bible’s simplistic moral teachings.

I have myself greater respect for children, who, I have noticed, very early in life, acquire the ability to tell a statement of fact from a fairy story. Indeed, you have to become a very sophisticated intellectual, to lose this ability.

There may not even have been intellectuals that sophisticated, around the time of Christ, for in that ancient world every factual assertion of the Bible was noted and somewhere challenged — yet with no discernible confusion between facts and fairies. The notion that people were somehow like children then, and very easily fooled, collapses upon the slightest acquaintance with classical literature. The smartest of the ancients had minds as sharp as the smartest of ours.

Scepticism towards claims of divine authority was no more invented in the 17th century, than sex was discovered in the annus mirabilis of 1963. The claim that Christ had been not metaphorically, but actually Resurrected, was met with howls of derision and mockery, as loud in the ancient world as in today’s. Louder, perhaps, because the claim was more of a novelty then.


Those “modern scholars” — like the “modern scientists” who pretend to explain the whole descent of living creatures from random twists of chance — have done an unwitting service. Though irritation may prevent our seeing, they have been chiselling away at the barnacles encrusting the hull of our old Christian ship, in the absence of which she will sail the faster. In the course of attacking our “ancient myths,” they have re-exposed our ancient veracities.

The most modern archaeological research has, for instance, consistently moved the dating of the Gospels earlier; has progressively uncovered the circumstantial particulars of those Gospels, in the soil of the Holy Land; has consistently and progressively validated the integrity of what the modern, atheist, and reductionist mind fully expected to fall apart.

More than a century ago, in the time of Ernest Renan, there was serious argument over whether “the Jesus of history” had even existed as a man; and if he had, over whether we could learn anything more about him from the historical record than that someone by that name may perhaps have existed. Amusingly, Renan juxtaposed the life of Muhammad, which he considered to be quite historical by comparison. Today, the situation is reversed. We have a detailed knowledge of events and circumstances in the Jerusalem of the 1st century; and there is less and less of which we can be certain in the Mecca of the 7th century.

The testing continues. Even as I speak, archaeologists for the Israeli Antiquities Authority are publishing details of a synagogue recently discovered at Migdal beach, on the Sea of Galilee (the ancient Magdala). As these professional diggers themselves explain, it is among synagogues in which Jesus very likely preached.

Not far from there, at Capernaum, I have myself stood near the remains of such a synagogue, and over what is quite unquestionably — from both the Biblical account, and the dating methods — the House of Simon Peter, known to later history as “Saint Peter.” This is the actual house, as we know from the Gospels, where Jesus lodged, and in effect the headquarters for his early missionary work, among the fishermen of Galilee.

We may reconstruct the scene with great precision. For instance, we can see how a stretcher, bearing a paralytic, would have been carried down the short, narrow, and crooked laneway, to that house. We can then back out that lane, to the main street — which was also the road from Jerusalem to Damascus — and up the short distance of a block or so, to another synagogue where He preached.

One little detail of this excavation stabbed me to the heart. It is the solution to that problem of getting the paralytic, on his stretcher or board, down the laneway, to put him before Jesus. The angle is too tight and the door too narrow. But the wall would have been low, the roof section a mere lean-to, and the solution is to pass the stretcher over the top, or as it were, through the roof. Which is just what we read in Mark, chapter two.

Now, I happened to remember, while visiting this site, having read in a commentary on Mark that certain modern scholars had proposed an emendation to this very text, since they thought the “passing through the roof” bit must be a scribal error. They proposed to fix it: to have the paralytic carried through the door, instead — thus inserting an error in the text, where there had been none.

Remember this whenever you see other scholarly emendations, and pray: “Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do.”

This is a very minor point, one of the innumerable minor points in “modern scholarship,” and I’ve mentioned it only because it opened my eyes. As a journalist, I am ever looking for the telling detail, the unintended detail, that gives the ring of truth. Or alternatively, gives the game away. In this case, it was exactly the sort of minor detail that would have impressed itself on an actual observer of the event.

What I’m saying here is something that should not be controversial, and yet somehow is. I’m saying that again and again the outward particulars of the Gospels are shown to ring true. A lawyer could say, “all your evidence is circumstantial.” And of course it is circumstantial: as abundantly circumstantial as the evidence for the life of Augustus Caesar. For even in a court of law, circumstantial evidence can become overwhelming.

One more point from my little example, to press upon you. It is how the archaeologists spotted the House of Simon Peter in the first place, before they had done things like examine the shards of ancient clay oil lamps, and dated them decade to decade by their style. The house was revealed to them because it was surrounded by an octagon of stone. A very early Byzantine pilgrim church, itself forgotten, had been erected right over the house in question. Unknowingly, the ancients showed the moderns where to look.

What does that tell us? That Christians in the earliest centuries knew perfectly well where the relics of their faith were to be found, and made them into sites of pilgrimage, in times of which we have no other record.

This is how we have established the likeliest site of the Crucifixion — just outside the walls of Jerusalem as we now know they then were; and even the topography of ancient Bethlehem — and the probable cave of the Nativity. Beneath the present churches are earlier churches; we follow the evidence straight down the shaft, to within touching distance of the events themselves. We make a great and terrible mistake, as scholars, by assuming that the Christians of the earliest centuries lived in the same sort of abstract fog that the professors in our universities live in today. And indeed, archaeological and historical scholarship on the origins of Christianity would have proceeded much faster, had the good faith and careful veracity of both Scripture and Tradition been assumed.

But leave all little things aside. A big picture has emerged, fairly clear, to anyone who wants to look upon it, grown mosaically from its constituent parts, many of them only recently assembled. It is perfectly compatible with the traditions of the Church. And it is interesting, living as we are in this very material age, to see so many material relics from the Life of Christ emerging from the soil of the Holy Land, now. Our Lord knows what we need.


My point has been, to insist on the Resurrection not as parable but as fact. I insist that the fact of the Resurrection alone can explain other features of early Christian history. And by extension, I will insist that it is the only way to explain the ultimate triumph and spread of the Christian religion, of our Catholic Church, and all that follows from them. To my mind, everything hangs on this Resurrection, and without it, everything falls.

So when I say, “He is Risen,” I do not mean it only, or “merely,” as part of some abstract, mytho-poetical narrative, as the so-called “modern scholarship” tells us to pretend. Nor do I mean we must pretend the opposite, because the cost of not pretending is too high. Let the whole Earth go to Hell if Christ is not Resurrected: as it surely would. I mean that Christ was bodily Resurrected from the human flesh, and that the larger account given in Scripture and Tradition deserves to be taken as received.

For I am in complete agreement with my Calvinist ancestors; and alike with the Anglican minister who inducted me by baptism into the Christian vocation; and with Saint Paul whom they were quoting: “If Christ be not Resurrected, then our preaching is vain, and your faith is also vain.” As Catholics we take this from the same page in First Corinthians.

If Christ be not Resurrected, then our faith is not only vain, but stupid. We have been conned. If, as Saint Paul reasons, the dead cannot rise — and the man had a very clear, and very well Greek-educated mind — then Christ did not rise, and your sins can incidentally never be forgiven.

If Christ did not rise, the dead are just dead, and so are we. We, the dead, have buried our dead, together with the rest of our strange human race, that has been burying its dead instinctively and compulsively and mysteriously, for about thirty thousand years.

For as Saint Paul also notices — in a wonderful anticipation of the centuries to come — even if there is a God, but Christ is not Risen, the account we have given of God is false. For we say that God raised Christ, when God did not raise him. It follows that everything else we have said about God, might as well stand corrected by e.g. the Koran.


In Jerusalem, on the Dome of the Rock — sited very conspicuously right on top of what is almost certainly the Holy of Holies, within the ancient Temple precincts — is an inscription, in their earliest angular Kufic script, on what was also the earliest monument the Arabs caused to be erected in a conquered land, by impressed Byzantine labour. This inscription reads in its most significant part: “Praise to Allah who begets no son and has no associate in power and who has no surrogate for humiliations.” The point is sustained by repetition, together with the contrary assertion that Muhammad is God’s envoy and can alone provide intercession on the day when the Muslim community is resurrected; and the Muslim Jesus comes to throw all us stubborn Christians into Hell.

That is on the outside of the Dome. On the inside there is a further long inscription, which mentions Jesus and Mary by name; states that Jesus, too, was an envoy, and therefore no Son of God; declares that the religion of God is Islam, and that God will reckon with those who dissent. Nearly fourteen centuries have passed, since this direct challenge was laid down to the existence of Christianity; and indeed, we are living in the fallout of it today.

Yet we have today, at least in the more progressive and nominal Christians of North America and Europe, the curious notion that Christianity is compatible with Islam. That it is likewise compatible with all other religions. That it is compatible with a Darwinian cosmology, and therefore with atheist materialism. And that the Church becomes ever more “relevant,” the more we admit she is defunct. Defunct — and yet still outwardly turning over, and available at a discount, in the post-modern spiritual flea market. For she still has a certain decorative and nostalgic value.

The Church makes, for such people, a nice venue for a wedding; it may offer a bit of formal “closure” for a funeral. The building may be worth including on the architectural preservation list, since no one is ever going to build another like it. And that is all very nice, and it goes with sentimental thoughts on the teachings of that religion.

The whole thing may now apparently be reduced to a “bottom line.” It comes down to being nice to people, and trying not to notice if anyone is mean. It is about being open-minded, and accepting people as they are, unless of course they happen to be religious. Indeed, whatever else Christ may have done, according to this view, he reduced all the Ten Commandments to just One Commandment: that “you mustn’t judge people.”

I wish that were a parody, of what I am told in email almost daily by liberal critics, who describe themselves as Christians, who tell me exactly what I just told you — and then go on to judge me. I’ve been told these things not only by post- and quasi-Protestants, but by many self-described “cradle Catholics,” and even by several “modern” Catholic priests, one of whom was clever enough to add the word “misogynistic,” to describe my opposition to abortion.

To them, I dare say, Christ was not really Resurrected, and so it follows that He is not really Very God of Very God, Begotten not Made, and so forth. Not that he isn’t, of course, for we “should keep an open mind.”

And we ought to look with especially open minds at those who chisel the words of Christ off public buildings.

Or those who teach our children in school that the whole history of our Church comes down to the bloody Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition, and … let us not forget the Trial of Galileo.

Likewise, we are asked to keep open minds towards those paragons of art and style who, say, put a Crucifix in a vial of urine; or display a statue of Mary, smeared with cowshit. For these people are only  “expressing themselves,” and ours is not to reason why, or otherwise to judge them. Ours is just to hork up the taxes to pay for their arts grants. For Christ, I have been told condescendingly by a self-described art critic, no less, was all about “expressing yourself.”

There are quite a few places in the Gospels where He says things that are very hard to square with the smileyface icon, and one memorable place where he takes out a whip. But faced with any of the 99 in 100 Gospel passages that will come as a surprise to the post-modern reader, he can always allow that Christ had a right to his opinions. He was, as one droll atheist acquaintance put it, probably no more crazy than many of the people we see walking the streets these days.

I myself often ride the Queen Street trolley in Toronto, and there’s a man who regularly boards it proclaiming that he, in point of fact, is the son of God: not only on his way to outpatient services at Queen Street’s famous mental health centre, but also on his way home to Parkdale. Clearly, by analogy, Christ is to be tolerated, for his own unique “point of view.”

There are quite a variety of points of view, and it has become State policy in every jurisdiction of which I am aware, throughout the Western world, never to prefer one to another. For each is a valid statement of … a point of view.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself facing a leading “human rights” lawyer, speaking on behalf of the Canadian “Human Rights” Commission, which he feared was being persecuted in the media, by people like me. In one curious moment, he admitted that, in fact, there may be a certain amount of incendiary material mixed in with the religion-of-peace messages in the literature of Islam. In the context, I was gobsmacked by this concession — did he mean something Mark Steyn had written in Maclean’s magazine might actually be true? But he quickly recovered by explaining that you can find that sort of thing in any religious literature.

“Huh?” I asked.

For instance, those Evangelicals in the United States. You could easily make a case just as prejudiced as Steyn’s against the Muslims, if you were to pick through what those crazy Evangelicals have to say.

Gobsmacked again. Being unrecognized by the chair, I was unable to utter, except as a mild heckle, the remark, “No you couldn’t.” Not quite as loudly as, the other day, Representative Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” at the President of the United States. My remark was anyway beside the point, for suppose, after smoking a lot of marijuana, we actually found the Evangelical literature was full of bloodcurdling calls for terror attacks on the secular humanists, and suicide bombings against mainstream Presbyterians, and pogroms against Muslims, Confucians, and Jews, the issue would then become: “But why are you defending the Jihadis, and prosecuting the Holy Rollers, if they’re doing exactly the same thing?” I mean, why don’t we have a level playing field here?

This is a question with which I will not detain anyone for long. Surely we all know the rôle hypocrisy plays in public life, and in the selection of victims by the exponents of progressive ideologies. That is to say, they consistently pick on the party that is less guilty, or the least guilty if there are three or more.

It simply is not possible — not humanly possible, and not possible in logic — to make every point of view equal to every other. So that if you have, as a governing principle, the proposition that “all points of view are equal,” and that nothing normative may be imposed — in other words, if you have the defining dogma of multiculturalism — you must perforce walk into a moral quagmire, in which that dogma comes into conflict with the elementary facts of life. And the more you try to wiggle out of that quagmire, the deeper you squelch in; along with all the persons you are holding captive to your one, ludicrous, moral certainty.

This is something I learnt from my own “secular humanist” and liberal parents, in the days before “liberalism” became what it is today; back when the law of non-contradiction was still given some lip-service, as a memento of our good old “Western Civ.” Today, I find it harder and harder to distinguish the reasoning behind ideas presented as “liberal” and “progressive,” from what I hear on the Queen Street trolley.


Ah, “Western Civ.” According to the counter on my laptop, at the time of first drafting, I had got 5,426 words into this evening’s talk without mentioning it yet. Except that, without mentioning it, I have been talking about nothing else. For when we clear away all the rubbish that has accumulated at the surface of our society through recent decades, what is left? Underneath it all lies the same old, same old, Western Civ. It is as much still there as the House of Simon Peter.

It is true that moral relativism is a threat, that multiculturalism is a threat, along with feminism, homosexualism, environmentalism, repackaged socialism, and various other isms of the past and future. Each constitutes an attack upon, and implied alternative to, the Christian civilization that tickles under its exponents’ feet. But the reassuring thing about all of these quasi-religious belief systems, is that they are asinine. They can be used to attack, and to destroy; to express anger, and demand redress; but they cannot be used to build anything. They offer no credible inspiration; no excuse for being good or brave or honest; and finally, no truly convincing reason to get up in the morning.

Great human suffering may still be entailed, as the Age of Ideologies continues. More than 100 million were murdered by the precepts of atheist ideologues in the last century — many times the combined casualties from all the religious wars in history. And many more millions, or hundreds of millions may, for all we can foresee, follow them into the mass graves of this one. Yet at the end of the day, each atheistical ideology fades, in the mists of its own internal contradictions. A new one then congeals out of the aether. And one ideology must perforce replace another, until a solid religious civilization is restored.


Islam, because it is a serious religion, is a more credible rival and enemy to Catholic Christianity, and has been so through many centuries. My views on Islam — and if you call it a monolith I will say it is not; and if you say it is not I will say it is — are not universally shared. They might even be considered a little controversial, but I advance them confidently all the same — from an experience of, and thinking about, Islam and Muslims, that goes back to my early childhood in Pakistan.

To be shockingly brief, Islam suffered a major defeat some centuries ago, when it lost its superior military power. The religion has not been without real merits, and is still competitive against the atheist ideologies I have listed. Against an entirely de-Christianized West, it might well prevail, for it presents an account of the world, and a moral order, that is at least more plausible than anything the atheists have thought up. It has, for the moment, the demographic advantage of higher birthrates, and until recently fairly open immigration to a Europe which, for its part, has been intent on committing demographic suicide.

Unlike other observers, who have predicted an Islamic takeover of Europe — an ambition openly espoused by many on Islam’s most cutting political edge — I don’t think that will happen. I think it is one of those trends which, alarming as they may appear in their tide, have within them the principle of their own recession. Europe does not want Islam; many of Europe’s Muslim immigrants don’t want it either; and all demographic trends are reversible, as all trends generally. The Muslim ghettoes of Europe have become large, and are still growing, but they remain ghettoes, and the people within them exclude themselves, or find themselves excluded, from the power of influencing the world around them.

I feel sad for them, because they have in most cases escaped one dysfunctional society, only to land in another. Having lost a place in their old social order, they have found a place instead as exiles; as “guest workers,” and now as “guest unemployed.” They may very well riot under provocation, including the integral provocation of their circumstances, but like the atheist ideologues of the West, they have only destruction to offer. There is no staying power there.

We think of Islam as confident today, even arrogant and swaggering at its visible extremes, but in my view this is an illusion. I have read and heard very intelligent Muslim observers despair at what they imagine to be their own fatal flaw. This is not excessive violence, or on the other side any failure of nerve. It is instead that, wherever there is open competition, for the hearts and minds of a new generation, the Christians seem to win the battle. They are appalled by the rapid, mostly peaceful spread of Christianity in Africa and Asia; and by the enterprise and comparative success of the new Christian communities. They are aware that the Christian torch is no longer being carried by Western missionaries, but is now lit from within. It is no longer an external influence that could be somehow cut off.

In many ways they feel compromised by the Muslims in Europe, who absorb more Christian ideas by osmosis than Muslim ideas by instruction. They are distressed by the sight of churches in Europe, once nearly empty except for the old, now sometimes filling up with young people of obviously Muslim backgrounds. They fear that their own young are more attracted to the flag of a revolutionary violence, than to the spiritual heart of Islam; that old-fashioned imams have no influence on them.

And it is quite reasonable to argue, that in the longer view of things, the very existence of anarchically violent forces within Islam, such as the death cults of Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, and revolutionary Iran, are a symptom of steep decline. When little is left to hold your religion together except the threat of death for apostasy, you are not, after all, in such a good position. There are diminishing returns as you hike up the threats; but if you withdraw them you may lose everything. Bad as things may seem for Christianity, when we look at the contemporary world from the least attractive angles, things look worse for the Muslims.

But again, I am not saying we can escape carnage, from people who have effectively lost their faith. Indeed, that is the very thing to fear — not believing and practising, loyal Muslims, often better behaved than common garden Christians. But rather, the post-Muslims, on the analogy of post-Christians. They cling to a bad parody of their ancient faith out of a faithless desperation. An atheist inside, who is a fanatical Muslim outside — that, to my mind, is the cross section of an Islamist terrorist.


Beyond the Islamic world, there is some life yet, even the odd flash of proselytizing zeal, in several forms of Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. I am inclined to make the same remarks about these: that the motive power is no longer essentially religious, but has more to do with ethnic chauvinism, with communal antipathies and rivalries. Samuel Huntington famously said the Islamic world tends to have bloody borders, and that is chiefly where you will also find the phenomena of Hindu and Buddhist revival: in the very places where Islamist terrorism has become a threat, and as a mirror to Muslim nationalisms and ethnic chauvinisms.

But they have themselves subscribed to religions that are not fully competitive with Christianity; which did not create the modern world, for all its flaws, and which are therefore unable to explain it. What they face from the West may be a post-Christian “secularism,” but that very secularism carries within itself the Christian virus — an exposure to conceptions of faith and freedom, of purpose and self-improvement — founded in Christian attitudes of mind. What we call “globalization” is itself a suspiciously post-Christian phenomenon, and might, to grant the Leftists their deepest suspicion, be called the continuation of Imperialism by other means.

God works in mysterious ways. And from what I can see He has never been ashamed to grow a garden out of the devil’s own spadework — as He hung His own body on the devil’s own tree. Indeed: faith teaches us to watch, constantly, for just such transformations.

“Western Civ” did prevail, in the definitive clash of civilizations, which began about five hundred years ago. I am therefore not waiting for this clash to begin, nor even for it to end, for I think that happened when the Ottomans retreated from Vienna. What we see in our political and diplomatic foreground is superficially a clash of civilizations, but one in which we are pitted against opponents who are doomed. The worst they can do is kill us. And in the long view of things, we are used to being killed.


“Western Civilization” would be a hard thing to define, according to yet another of the persons I’ve had a verbal rumble with, recently. He added for good measure that the term appears to be a euphemism that white people use, to distinguish themselves from people who are brown, or some other colour, and that it is therefore an example of the vocabulary of “racism.” It also had something to do with sexism, as I recall. It goes without saying he was himself a white male.

Strange to say, I have no difficulty whatever defining the term, “Western Civilization,” and will attempt to do so in my next sentence. It is the civilization created in the wake of the Catholic Church.

Only by reversing cause and effect, can we make the definition difficult. The Catholic Church created Europe; Europe did not create the Catholic Church. This is a plain matter of historical fact, without subtlety. It therefore requires a remarkable diffusion of historical ignorance to refute it. The Europe that the Catholic Church civilized was — except for the collapsing civilization of Rome, which she in some respects re-animated — a continent of savages. Long before the Protestant Reformation, it had been raised to the condition of Chartres, Amiens, and Reims; of Rome, Florence, and Paris; of Saint Francis, Thomas Aquinas, and Dante.

A little more needs to be added, to make clear how much cultural or civilizational freight Europe was carrying when opportunity beckoned and we took to the high seas.

The civilization forged in the bosom of the Catholic Church had, to a remarkable and unprecedented degree, developed a power of assimilation, an inclusivity, that made it capable of weaving into Catholic experience the best it could find from all non-Catholic sources. It was from its beginnings, and on sound biblical reasoning, open to “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good report.”

The same was made the bedrock of our modern civilization, founded directly on that of the high mediaeval Western Church, founded in turn upon the rock of Peter. In our openness to every claim of truth, we have been repeating and extending the principles worked out in her monasteries, her universities, among her clerisy, and in the Catholic civil life of country and town. With all its ragged claims to independence and cultural neutrality, modern science is itself an artefact of the mediaeval, Western Christian, or Catholic mind, reaching out towards God along every available pathway.

I am not selling a nostalgia for the Middle Ages. That became woven into the Romantic movements of the late 18th and 19th centuries, which are themselves shopworn. To start with, the spirit of the mediaeval Catholic civilization was, to use intellectual shorthand, much more Classical than Romantic.

The outward face of the Middle Ages, the physical landscape, could we revisit, as we can in factual imaginative reconstructions, was extremely beautiful; but also poor, and technologically backward, by any modern standards, even those of rural India. Life expectancy was lower, and every other statistical indication of what we call prosperity today, is in our favour. But we benefit only from cumulative material progress, itself depending on civilizational continuities, and thus founded upon mediaeval antecedents. Spiritually, we are inferiors in every respect; intellectually they were broader, and it is remarkably easy for a person knowledgeable about the philosophical life of the Middle Ages to draw the whole post-Renaissance Western world as a narrowing of mediaeval vistas.

I do not want to discount cumulative material progress, for that would mean denying the Renaissance of the 12th century. One must be a formidable idiot, as well as an aspiring tyrant, to draw a line at some arbitrary point in the past and say, “that was quite enough technology.” The Catholic tradition has never been Luddite, any more than iconoclast. We have a very long history, not only of accepting technological developments, but of incorporating them promptly into our religious life.

Mechanical clocks, for instance. They were independently invented in both Europe and China, though on different schemes. In the East they were taken as toys, played with for a while then discarded and forgotten. In the West, they were hung on the steeples of churches, and made the centre of monastic life: a means to choreograph the Hours of Prayer.

No concession whatever is owed to the propagandists for the many sciences that, after all, we invented. For at the heart of all scientific enterprise has been, and always will be, that utterly Catholic doctrine of the self-consistency of Our Lord, and of His creation. Our understanding of God is such, that we expect to find causation and order and sense, wherever we look in nature. And having looked for it, we have always found it.

A Catholic Christian civilization of the future will be just like any of the past — Catholic at the heart — but outwardly and materially as different from the mediaeval Catholic civilization as our world today is outwardly different from the world of the 15th century. Moreover, it must in principle seek to preserve within itself everything of value from the intervening “Modern” period.

Many centuries from now, could we somehow fly forward, North Americans like ourselves might be surprised to find an extraordinary and flourishing Catholic civilization, centred chiefly in, say, Africa. And this would be no greater surprise for us, than it would have been for the first Greek and Hebrew Christians, to imagine a Christian civilization seated in the dark continent of Europe, even beyond the Alps. Catholic ideas created our high civilization, and not vice versa. And Christ himself goes where he is wanted, and moves on from where he is unwanted. Geography is not destiny.


That, verily, is what we must seek to recover, in our ambitions for this world: the practice and presence of Christ. We do not seek to discard this good in order to obtain that one; we are not iconoclasts or puritans. We most certainly do not seek the impossibility of turning time backwards. Rather we seek a way towards what we already know to be good, and true, and beautiful, that can again be assimilated and coordinated within the temporal dimension of the Body of Christ, in the light of his Resurrection. This is something different from a political task; for a civilization is built not within the city of man, but within his soul.

To my mind, it would be a terrible waste of time — an expense of spirit in a waste of shame — to pursue the ambition of a Catholic civilization by any political means. The purpose of politics should be entirely negative — to provide remedies against specific evils that afflict all men. We may need police, we may need courts, we may need defences against potential invaders, we may need a few by-laws, especially in towns, and some readiness to cope with natural disasters. We need laws to prevent men from enslaving each other. We most certainly do not need laws to tyrannize and goad us towards some crackerjack plan for an earthly utopia.

The politics in Christian societies of the past were minimal. They will be minimal again if a Christian society is restored. The basic scheme is to keep the government out of people’s faces, and let them get on with their lives; while similarly preserving the independence of the Church, and the sanctuary she offers. These are the politics of “live and let live.” In the well-ordered commonwealth, the State is reduced to something almost decorative, and the ancient Catholic principle of subsidiarity — that problems are to be resolved by the smallest, lowest, and least centralized competent authority — becomes a way of life.

There, I have said enough about politics.


“Christ,” wrote Cyril of Alexandria, “has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but His by essence and by nature.” This quote is lifted from the encyclical of Pope Pius XI, entitled Quas Primas, published in 1925. It was the encyclical that introduced the Feast of Christ the King.

The encyclical, in its day, was not without a political subtext. But this was transient. It served as a reminder to the people of Italy, at least, that their ultimate allegiance was owed not to the fascist, Benito Mussolini, but to Heaven. And this point is made while expounding references to the Messianic kingship, through both Old and New Testaments. Being no ecclesiological expert, and in an environment where several of them may lurk, I tread carefully while adding that this encyclical attests Christ’s reign, not only over what is left of Catholic Christendom, but also over the world that He made. It is to an otherworldly Kingship we owe our deepest loyalty; not to a nation, nor to a race, nor to an ethnicity, let alone some jackboot punk, “dressed in a little authority.” The Church in her nature can represent no particular worldly interest. She serves no Caesar, and answers to no Parliament — only to Christ the King.

In the Dominion of Canada in which I was born, there could seldom be any serious conflict between one’s loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen, and one’s loyalty to Christ the King. For I had the inestimably good fortune to be born in a free country, an open country; and in no mean city. Alas, that is not the usual state of affairs, on this planet, and where it exists it cannot be relied upon to last.

Through history the common people have often been vexed by tyrants; and in our time the ever-growing and ever-more-intrusive powers appropriated by the Nanny State have stripped us of many ancient freedoms. Each in turn is replaced with some novel, intrinsically dubious, and invariably non-Christian so-called “right” or special privilege: ranging from a mother’s right to kill her unborn child, to the pornographer’s right to corrupt public morals, to the fanatic’s right not to have his delicate feelings hurt. Indeed, all these new rights have required Orwellian inversions of language, to make an unambiguous evil smell like a plausible good. And, each is a “group right” — the essence of true fascism — designed to obviate hard-won individual rights, often going back beyond that very mediaeval Magna Carta.

As I hinted above, we face, for the foreseeable future, a variety of atheist, post-modern ideologies that are not only asinine in themselves, but are metastasizing through quasi-legal bureaucracies. Catholics are, for reasons we should easily understand, the primary target of these ideologues; though Evangelicals and all other sincere Christian believers are usually our fellow targets. That the bureaucrats themselves hardly know what they are doing, should also go without saying.

As a priest of my acquaintance put the matter: “We live in the golden age of the professional bureaucrat, of constant expansion of paper-pushers, especially in government, but also in private business and the Church. It is a mixture of a very few idealists, with careerists, manipulative ideologues, lazy and incompetent freeloaders, and pure charlatans. They regulate everything, in order to make a necessity out of themselves, bilk anything that financially moves, disdain those whom they claim to serve, and corrode the fabric that holds society together — while claiming to be indispensable to its operation. And most people actually believe their lies.”

They are the manipulative ideologues in this priest’s list that most distress me, because in my experience, not only of Canada, a large bureaucracy provides the ideal environment for such persons to flourish.

The tactics of our ideologues are quite similar to those of the Arab conquerors of the formerly Christian countries of north Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Reckless pogroms were usually avoided. For centuries, long after the conquests, Christians continued to be very numerous within the Muslim domains; it thus made no sense to provoke them into revolt, especially after the Crusaders had touched down in Palestine. Instead, the policy was to ratchet up the cost of remaining a Christian, in a gradual but constant way, until the Christian community had finally been reduced to a small and cowering minority. It was the achievement of a thousand years. That is also the method of our ideological adversaries: to ratchet up the cost of remaining a Christian.

I am fairly optimistic, however, that they lack both the opportunities and the skills to prevail in this. Ratcheting requires the virtue of patience, and confidence in uninterrupted power. It requires that you never push too far or too fast: for the most complacent frog will begin to react, if the temperature of his water rises too quickly. Our tormentors today are too impatient. Their tactics are unsound.


Under which circumstances, all that is required of us, is to stand our own ground, with greater patience, and greater courage, than our tormentors. A Catholic Christian civilization can be restored, over time, by the same methods that were used to create one in the first place — not by violence, and not by usurpation, but by consistently refusing to deny Christ. That is the trick the disciples used, at a time when Christians numbered only in the thousands. They recognized Christ as their King, and served like soldiers.

And a Catholic Christian civilization can be built no other way, than soul by soul, until the balance tips. It is in this way, alone, that we allow Christ to build it. The alternative approaches inevitably fail; they are all merely squalid.

So that is what I propose we should do, to restore our Catholic Christian civilization; the only plan of action that can possibly work, or has ever worked. We must stop denying Christ in our lives; stop ignoring his Resurrection; stop recognizing any spiritual authority that is not Christ’s. Stop refusing to act at His command. Stop encumbering His way.


Let me conclude with a few quick hints: ten specific practical suggestions, on how to advance the Kingdom of Christ in this world.

The first is, absolutely refuse to give obeisance to the various idols which the “politically correct” specially define, and then demand that we worship, such as “equality,” “fairness,” “human rights,” and  the other specious abstractions to which they attribute a gnostic and mystical power. And symmetrically, refuse to worship in the temples of the gods of money and power and coolness.

Second, make conscious, reverent references to God — even to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — an audible part of our lives in the world, and love God in our hearts. Conversely, carefully avoid speaking of any divine thing in a cute or irreverent way.

Third, unfailingly attend the Mass, each Sunday, and daily where we can; and let the Mass do its work upon our souls. (Non-Catholics should likewise be punctilious in their own religious observances.) Let the enemy see our churches filled. Observe and participate in all other sacraments, which includes, for Catholic Christians, the crucial one of making a good Confession, frequently. In any event, prayerfully ask God’s forgiveness when we fail.

Fourth, defend our families, by keeping as aloof as possible from the bureaucracies of Nanny State. Do not neglect the needs of our parents in their time of sickness and old age; do not fail to instil in our children, by our own upright and sincere behaviour, the respect they owe to us as their parents.

Fifth, do not participate in any way in what a recent pope so eloquently described as “the culture of death.” Do everything in our power to streetproof ourselves and our children against its demands, and do not hesitate to spell out the basic facts of life, behind all life issues. Be sure our children understand them, and that they grasp the sanctity of all human life.

Sixth, reject sexual liberation in all its insidious forms. Do not even think about fornication and adultery. Truly respect and accommodate the opposite sex.

Seventh, be consistently honest and honourable in all business and social transactions, with everyone, regardless of race colour or creed, even when it must be at some cost to ourselves. Do not play with temptations to corruption. Yet, assiduously avoid being “holier than thou.”

Eighth, be truthful in speech, fair and even charitable in speaking of other people, and look constantly for whatever good we can find in them. Be encouraging rather than discouraging by habit, and most important, do not spread personal gossip and lies, even against our worst enemies, and even when we think they deserve it.

Ninth, be content with what we have in our family and religious life, make ourselves happy with the homes we have to return to, and do not look covetously upon the Joneses. Accept with humility our station in life; have ambitions, but make them unselfish.

Tenth, be content with our fate more generally, and trust in God to deliver His justice in the fullness of Eternity: “Thy will be done.” Take only what comes our way, including all knocks, and use what we have been given, including all talents and skills, generously to God’s glory. Indeed, give, according to our means, a little wildly. See and sympathize with need. And rejoice, always, in the life we are given, and in the knowledge that what we leave upon the face of time can only be our example.

Steven Temple

There would be a very long post, if I tried to tell the history of second-hand book-dealing in Toronto, if only from my own temporally limited point of view. It is too early in the morning for whisky, however, so I will skip to the end.

Booksellers’ row along Queen Street West is now finished. There were thirteen of these “antiquarian” shops a generation ago, roughly in the stretch from University to Spadina. Steven Temple’s, now up steep stairs at 489 Queen West (pushed half-way to Bathurst), is the last. He opened in 1974, and will soon close forever. If gentle reader is currently present in the Greater Parkdale Area, he must go there immediately. The sell-off will end on St Andrew’s, next Saturday, during which any book 25 dollars and down will be 5 dollars, and those above, half price. Also, you must go to acquire one last loving glimpse of what a second-hand bookstore looked like — at how 50,000 mostly hardcovered books, many of considerable antiquity, could be fit into rooms without level floors, by the organic extension of makeshift shelving.

Steve himself is an old buddy of mine. He’s a crusty character, with a crusty wife: both magnificent souls. Modern book retailing, generally in decline, has no use for such people — who love what they sell, and know a great deal about it. Who work on guild principles. For whom competition is good news. Who take personal risks, and would rather starve than work in a cubicle. Who do not eschew hard physical labour: for endless lugging about of books, in big heavy boxes, is among the tougher proletarian vocations.

He’s an old Lefty, and Yank, from the Vietnam era, who kicked me out of his store for one good reason or another many years ago. I think it was something reactionary I said. Then meeting me a year later, gave me another tongue-lashing for not having visited his store recently. With advancing age Steve has mellowed some, and if I am not very mistaken, he has found God. (This usually makes a person easier to live with, but not always.) His wife Jennifer can scare even the people Steve can’t. She is completely lacking in hypocrisy, and allied soothing social qualities. Her scary ones are loyalty, truth, grit, fierce humour, and real charity. She neither speaks, nor listens, with the half-attention to which urban and suburban people are accustomed. Neither does her husband.

Steven Temple Books began a few blocks east, at street level. Four decades have suddenly passed. I think this has been his fourth location, as rising rents have pushed him westward ho, ever closer to the sunset. His specialties have long been Canadiana, and modern first editions. Neither is my bag, especially, but from his general stock in classics, philosophy, modern literature at large, travels and topography, I have always found prizes. One could spend hours making discoveries in any one section — at intervals dragged out on the sidewalk when Steve wants company for a smoking break.

He will retreat to Welland, Ontario, pension-free and laden with debt as all other retiring booksellers, and no doubt continue selling books through Abe & the Internet; but it will not be anything like the same. It will instead be “books for collectors.” (Spit.) It was that general stock — the presence of books for actual reading, including the obscure and the hard to find — that made second-hand bookstores what they were through the last many centuries. They were the meetingplaces of the literate — their agora, market and trading ground. In the strangest city, one would find such a bookstore, and it would be like an embassy from home.


“Anyone can translate Chinese,” according to the beautiful lady who was teaching the use of the brush. This was in a backward little British school in Bangkok, wherein I was enrolled at age eleven, almost half a century ago. The class met in a small, yellow-plastered room, that opened on the side of a narrow klong, or canal. Seldom used, this klong had become clogged with water lilies. It contained catfish, who were tumultuously grateful for the occasional modest lump of sticky rice. Like everything else in Bangkok, it is now paved over; but I remember it — the room, its decaying plaster, the low weathered wooden benches, the stone slabs they rested upon, the miracle of water and the bubbles from the tippling fishes — as a premonition of paradise. The elements assembled themselves in that way.

The name of this teacher has escaped me, and it is her own fault. She used different names in different situations, quite fancifully it seemed. This is a Chinese poetical conceit. But let me settle on “Miss Ping.”

I vividly remember her long face, her willowy and thus curving form, her extremely narrow eyes, and shy laughter (always covering her mouth when she giggled). The class was hardly mandatory, and was for the benefit of several Chinese students, but anyone could attend. One might call it a drop-in clinic for victims of Communism, which the parents of these children all seemed to be. It met once or twice in a fortnight. Miss Ping had regular employment elsewhere — I think as a translator in a bank. This, because I remember from her remark, that while anyone can translate from Chinese, the translation of commercial documents into Chinese was nearly impossible.

She engaged in calligraphy and decorative painting in order to maintain her sanity, I believe. She studied the old poets. She would carry around, in an Indian choli bag, cumbersomely large books, printed in Shanghai a long time ago and in advanced states of disintegration. These provided her with “text.”

Anyone can translate Chinese, as I learnt, thanks to the genius of the language. Or rather, no one from the West can hope to do it, until he has not only mastered a few characters, but thrown off some rather Western expectations of how they should arrange themselves. Greek and Latin made the barbarians of the far, far West instinctively attentive to grammar. But there is no grammar in Chinese. There are no tenses, either, nor number nor mood; or at least that is the first impression. Everything is contextual. One might construct a sentence in Chinese without realizing one had done so. But it would likely be a silly sentence, saying only one thing, at most. Miss Ping would giggle at it, and cover her mouth. A good Chinese sentence says something new every time you look at it. It does not need subsidiary clauses; they move along with it, as a train of ghosts.

Life at dusk, in careless quiet.
The tasks are done, my mind turned free:
No more career to plan for,
Only the hills have work for me.
Pine-winds blow on my loosened sash,
Moon lights upon my lute-plucking hand.
You asked about duty. All I know:
A fisherman’s tune drifts up from the river.

This would be the latest of many attempts to translate this reasonably famous poem by Wang Wei (701?–761?) composed, or so it implies, soon after his retirement from the court life of Chang-an. I tried it myself after consulting several previous versions, and looking up characters in Karlgren. I wanted to be sure that anyone could translate Chinese, before recommending this hobby to others.

For so I remember being told: “Anyone can do it.” But first he must put all the habits associated with not doing it at a distance from himself.

Gentle reader should not imagine I can read or write Chinese, and I’ve always been defeated by the tones when speaking. For the language is not spoken but sung. This eliminates the very possibility of rhetorical emphasis, or rather sublimates it, still deeper than French. For the words must be sung, while whispered. Only some kind of northern barbarian would pick words from a sentence and fling them in your face. Only a newspaper would desecrate a text with question and exclamation marks, to say nothing of those fiendish arabic numerals. It was my impression that Miss Ping was so gentle and soft because stepping through a world that was rife with barbarians; that she nevertheless giggled to herself, because we were so funny.

Classical Chinese is sung, and whispered, but also painted. The brush is the thing. “It grows from your hand.” Whereas, a pen is a crutch, held always at an angle. One must lean against the stalk of a pen. Step one: learn to feel the tip of the brush, as it dances on the paper; as the tip beyond your fingertips; as it stands, and kneels, and bows, and twirls, and leaps from one character to another. You are the mind and the brush is your body. But not in any Cartesian sense, since the mind and the body are one.

Perhaps it is only one of those falsely “recovered memories,” for I have just been looking at an old book containing translations from that Wang Wei, and it has suddenly reminded of the character, hsien. It is a visual portmanteau: framed with the character for a “gate,” with the character for “moon” inserted in the open space between the two “doors” and under the “bridge” of that “gate” character. It is one of several plausible words for “idle” in classical Chinese. The dictionary adds: “at ease, sauntering, leisurely, quiet, unoccupied.”

I love this word. I have always loved this word: Hsien.

I could even draw it with a brush. (Not here: I do not have the technology.)

I did draw it once for the benefit of a Western-educated Chinese scholar, who assured me that everything I explained to gentle reader, just above, is rubbish. I’m working from a “romantic” theory, he said — having bought into the sort of nonsense that could only be subscribed by e.g. Wang Wei, along with all the other poets. It is mere chance that many, if not all, Chinese characters are evocative. In reality, this PhD averred, they merely “evolved” in a random way, from bone scratches — like animals according to Darwin’s theory. There is no logic to them. All the meanings they have are arbitrary, and have been “assigned,” by chance.

“They are assigned, by Heaven,” replies my inner Wang Wei.

See the I Ching on “chance”; or Stéphane Mallarmé.

On this much we were agreed: that the moon, glowing through the city gate — beckoning the poet from the griefs of the city, in a Keatsian sort of way — is an idea containing no logic at all. Poetry does not work like math; though it would be true to say that math sometimes works like poetry. Both are essentially incomprehensible, because they reach beyond human comprehension. But I have come to the conclusion, alas contra Miss Ping, that there is a certain class of idiots who cannot follow language even to the poetical equivalent of two plus two. They cannot see the point, & thus, anything they touch comes apart in their hands.


Really I am responding to a criticism posted to some squib I wrote elsewhere last Saturday. A gentleman who signed himself Adeodatus — a name he chose meaning “gift of God” — complained that my columns always ramble. He repeated several of my points, with mild sarcasm, then said he could not see the connexions. “I’m just picking at a few threads that I see in this essay,” he reports, “but they unravel if I try to pull at one for a coherent progression of thought.”

One might reply that it is a function of prose, to ramble. Too, if one starts pulling at threads, any composition will come apart. This is equally true of silk gowns, whether of fine or coarse manufacture; and as Whitehead and Russell eventually discovered (to Russell’s horror and Whitehead’s delight), also of the Principia Mathematica. It is moreover true, that if you pull the legs off ants, they will be unable to make any coherent progression; and that if you pull the wings off flies, it will be seen that they are incapable of flight.

Sometimes we see things, according at least to Wang Wei and Miss Ping, by seeing them — and not by some other method. We see them, as it were, when they are shown — arranged, perhaps, in relations like a painting, where the eye moves from one thing to another, then returns upon itself. Not a syllogism, but what the Greeks called a “syndrome” — things that go together because they belong together (tautologically enough). Painters, like poets, do not argue but arrange. Of course, one may be shown something and still not see it. One thinks, for instance, of a moon in a gate.

The modern, analytical, reductionist mind is “just like that” — like the boy who pulls the wings off flies. It has no use whatever for literature, or art. Nor, I have noticed, for klongs and water lilies.

As Wallace Stevens — perhaps the most Chinese of American poets — openly confessed in “Gubbinal,” his own point of view could be easily confuted. “That strange flower, the sun, / Is just what you say, / Have it your way,” the little poem begins. And concludes: “The world is ugly, and the people are sad.”

Our illustrious mayor

Toronto, or “Toto” for short, is once again in world news, thanks to our beloved mayor, Rob Ford. It is nearly a year since I mentioned him in a post I should have deleted by now, for being merely topical. I explained why every left-thinking person in the Greater Parkdale Area had been teased to apoplexy by the contemplation of this gentleman. This because he was: 1. fat, 2. colourful, 3. rightwing &, 4. freely elected by a large margin over some gay leftwing establishment darling. (Some other reasons have accumulated since then.)

Turns out, the police have recovered some video in which — it is alleged — our peerless mayor is shown doing crack with local low-life. Whether smoking or snorting or otherwise ingesting, we do not know, & neither apparently does our splendid mayor, who now says he was actually too drunk to remember the occasion. Dear Mayor Ford: among our living national treasures.

I am in receipt of several emails querying the judgement of the fine people of Toronto for having elected this giant of a man. And as, despite my distaste for democracy, I voted for him myself, I feel some sort of reply may be indicated.

Quite frankly, we tried mayors who were not crackheads. They didn’t work out. Also, the last one didn’t drink enough. That’s why we elected Ford. He’s doing great: slashing through the city bureaucracy & privatizing everything he can. He even holds the civic unions in subjection: not one has dared to strike. And ho, he’s trying to build subways. Anyone who has attempted to ride a trolley across this town will understand our need to tunnel. So what is the problem?

As our good, excellent mayor told his Police Chief: bring on your video! Ford says he’s curious to see it himself, & that the rest of Toronto would surely also like a chance to catch it on YouTube.

Gentle reader knows I am a traditionalist in most things, & a loyal Canadian. Our very first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was a magnificent drunkard, who managed to hold office for nearly twenty years. There is an Arabian Nights of anecdotes that our primly officious historians have been too shy to tell. Verily, half of Macdonald’s Cabinet were awash most evenings, & the debates in Parliament were enlivened thereby. Almost all the damage ever done to this country was by sobersides.

I would have thought drug abuse would give our esteemed mayor credibility with the Left. After all, the Trudeau boy proudly announces that he’s been toking marijuana around Parliament Hill, & the media kiss him for it. And how is a man to maintain his Chestertonian girth without beer & bacon? Moreover, it appears that our accomplished mayor was altering his consciousness in the company of bona fide members of Canada’s celebrated multicultural communities. Indeed, visible minorities if my eyes do not deceive me. They may have been wanted by the cops, but at least they weren’t bourgeois, tedious, white scolds. And note well: our admirable mayor has single-handedly brought the smug levels in this city way down.

Alas, even the Toronto Sun the tearsheet of “Ford Nation” — is now calling on the poor beleaguered fellow to resign. (Not my fault: it is one of the large media organizations I do not presently own.)

Don’t do it, Robbie! Stand your ground! … And here’s hoping the wheels break off, when they come to cart you away!

Dies irae

One of my upcountry correspondents wrote this in response to my “All Souls” column (published this morning at Catholic Thing):

“Whenever our choir performs the Mozart Requiem, with its magnificent showcasing of the Dies irae, we sell out. Up here, in redneck country-&-western Grey-Bruce, we sell out: 700 tickets for a one-night stand. People are hungry for the truth that their decisions, their conduct, their lives, have eternal meaning, even if the only way they can enunciate that truth is by buying a ticket to a concert.”

It is just so, & I have long noticed that as the post-modern (or more precisely, post-conciliar) Church has been putting her legacy out in the trash, the secular world has been picking through the pieces. The incomparably magnificent musical heritage of Holy Church survives, for the most part no longer in the churches, from where it was banished after Vatican II; but outside, on things like CDs. It has become “classical” music, & against all expectations, holds some considerable ground in competition with the “popular” music of the street & the gutter. Churches that have been emptied out by the liturgical “reforms,” fill up again for secular concerts of the music that was discarded.

There is mystery in the thing itself — the mystery of evil, & its defeat — but no mystery in a phenomenon that has been known throughout history. People are drawn to beauty, but also often repelled by it. In either case, they know what beauty is. Indeed, public authorities in many cities have discovered that they can drive thugs & vandals out of dangerous passageways, simply by piping in Bach & Mozart. Conversely, raucuous noise can be used to attract the same to locales for drugs, violence, & fornication.

Beauty, truth, goodness, are allied; as too, their opposites. It is important to remember this in a Christian way. In a difficult passage (Matthew 12:26 et seq., but parse the Greek carefully) our Lord warned that spirits not working for him were working against him. But speaking of people (in Mark 9) He turned this around: “those who are not against me are for me.” Bear this constantly in mind, when speaking with non-Christians: that the unchurched sheep still hunger.

We needn’t judge what we do not understand. But we must be fiercely on our guard against what is very plain to the understanding. For we live in a fallen world, in which the good, the true, & the beautiful, need defence.

That extraordinary sequence, Dies irae, going back I now learn to the 12th century, & not the 13th as I previously understood, gathers together the strands of a Catholic teaching now half-remembered. It presents the reality of Purgation, in an appropriately visionary way. That trumpet makes no uncertain sound. It calls us to battle. It flies upon Satan’s greatest lie: that our lives are inconsequential. It attacks all the corollaries of that lie: that we are helpless in ourselves, that we cannot help each other, that we cannot bolster one another in prayer; that our dead lie beyond the reach of our love, & we beyond theirs. It provides a vision of the Last Judgement in which all of the consequences of our acts coalesce. And by necessity, it is terrifying: because life is not a dream, & death is not its ending.

This is the truth, to be accepted or ignored, to be lived or hidden from. It was the wisdom of the Church through the ages to teach this with great clarity. Yet today she prefers to teach in a half-hearted way, as if to children who must not be frightened, omitting or disguising the scary bits.

Without the Black Mass, without the black vestments, without the clarion call to repentance, of course the churches empty out. Why bother listening to preachers who are not sure what they have to say? Who dress a part they cannot play? Who, standing even before the altar, turn their backs towards our Christ. And play their nursery tunes, & speak as if we were a kindergarten class.

But take heart. The little men cannot keep the Rex tremendae majestatis out of our chapels. They haven’t the strength. They cannot hide our Lord from us, for we can look past them. For consider, that the trumpet will sound, through all the sepulchres of this earth; & the sheep & the goats will be parted.