Essays in Idleness


Inside the fog

When I am reading history, it is always as a partisan. There is no war in which I have not taken sides. Indeed, figuring out what side one would have been on is part of the pleasure in studying the past, and a goad to intimate involvement. “You had to be there,” and since we are not, suddenly we must do everything we can to get there. We were called, invariably, by some little glimpse, some little scent, the sound of a distant bell. For a moment we have detected something that is really there. It has touched us, arrested our attention, stopped us in our riding by.

That partisanship is a natural mark of belonging. It grows from the encounter with the past. It arrives from beyond the era about which we are reading; it comes along with us, as it were. But now we have a connexion with that past, and in return, it has a new connexion with us. We are no longer simply looking and deciphering, as one might do with a fuzzy photograph. We have begun in some sense to participate. “All history is modern history,” and all of it contains people, places, things, capable of fully engaging our attention. There is a “ring of truth,” and we know that we are there.

As a late adolescent, reading Huizinga, my whole life almost disappeared into “the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the XIVth and XVth centuries.” It all happened in the first few pages of a book. I saw, smelled, heard, small but characteristic particles of the later Middle Ages. A very learned scholar had evoked them for me. It was the pilgrim’s call. Many have spent their whole lives as historians of such an era, or even smaller tracts of space and time. Many have also wasted their lives in this way, not realizing that a great scholar must not be confined to a speciality; that the understanding of the speciality itself requires a much broader learning; and that the very wisdom that is acquired through mastering the ability to communicate what has been found, is bound up in the finding.

At the root of that first enchantment — always I should think — is something real. Nothing comes from nothing, and the cynic’s belief that every noble thing is a “romantic illusion” is actually quite naïve. In the end I do not believe anyone, not a clinical madman, will die for a romantic illusion. (This is what, to my mind, Don Quixote was all about, and why it has the power to bring tears to one’s eyes, even at the richest and most satirical moments of farce.)

Chivalry is now our “for instance.” The whole cult, as any that is staffed by humans, was rank with posturing and hypocrisy. The “spirit of chivalry” was and is a fog. But venture into that fog, and we will sometimes encounter the real thing: acts of dramatic yet unselfish bravery, rising to sanctity. The person who does not expect that, will be hit by the horse flying by.

In a kingdom not of this world, I believe, things are the opposite of what we’d call “spiritual.” It is rather in this world that an aura of “spiritualism” surrounds hard truth. (Reverence and love were instead required.) Heaven is not a congealed fog; though “Heaven’s gate in Jerusalem wall” lies hidden in the fog. Only the partisan will seek it. And the faith that finds it knew where to look.

More information

The whole morning, up here in the High Doganate, when I was intending to draft another of my long, rambling, tedious posts, was taken out instead by the quaint business of “catching up with email.” This is a punishment for trying to ignore it several days. It can’t be ignored. Try that, and some of your best friends will call “Missing Persons.”

We forget, though sometimes we remember, that the world has been totally transformed by “information” in half a generation; that in the time since this century began (according to some idiot statistical survey I saw on, maybe, BBC) something like one thousand times more “information” has been generated than in all the previous history of the world. And by now that is a fading cliché (the story appeared years ago): another meaningless piece of “information,” arguably searchable in the steaming electronic pile.

But those who admire “progress” are titillated by that sort of thing. Their measures are invariably quantitative — including their calculations of “the quality of life,” for the purpose of determining which humans need to be eliminated. The whole of Shakespeare is not enough information to fill a tiny corner of a Zipdisk, or whatever has replaced it now. (Keychain flash drive?) The NSA could suck it up in kilotuplicate, without even noticing. I am aware gentle reader may know this already. But telling us what we already know, a trillion times over, adds to the world’s stock of “information,” and thus formally counts as more “progress,” providing as it does further statistical proof that what we have today is almost infinitely better than what Shakespeare had, or we had in Shakespeare.

The discerning will know I am a sceptic of “progress” (the scare quotes communicating, Progress to what?). They may also realize I am not entirely opposed to the thing; to saving lives by electronically-dispatched ambulances and so forth. But the limitations to the digital revolution are observed, then ignored. They need to be effectively presented in some way. Yet they cannot be effectively presented, no matter how many times they are repeated, from within the machine.

I know a pretty girl, assured that she was loved five hundred times in voice and text messaging. And, not one “I love you” directly to her eyes. (And if the boy should ever read this, he will know why he was dumped.)

Should one tweet from funerals? “But of course,” was the argument from an Internet etiquette specialist, consulted as part of a recent “debate.” Funerals, especially those for special someones who were very close, provide just the perfect moments for poignant twitteration. So that soon, I should think, we may clock each Mass, by the amount of Twitter traffic it is generating.

But of course, this is the end of the world. Which I add quite glibly, from a primal search for drama. The Greek dramatists would produce three tragedies, and then a farce for light relief at the end.

The viscerality deficit

The uphillness of the struggle, for those who would restore a modicum of good old Western Civ anywhere, can be almost discouraging at times. I think decades ago we were already trying to roll our chariot up an inclined plane. By now the angle of ascent is formidable, and the need for genuine prayer has correspondingly compounded.

One thinks of e.g. catechism classes. The purpose of these, in my understanding, is to teach kids (of all ages) not previously much instructed, in the rudiments of the Catholic faith. I’ve known several smart and (often) well-intentioned young women — budding school-marms, if I may flatter them — who have reported to me on their classroom experiences.

Their kids are also reasonably smart and well-intentioned, if caught young enough. They have proved surprisingly eager to learn. The method of teaching sounded to me more old-fashioned rote, than what is specified in the public school system; and it works rather better than whatever the public school teachers are attempting, under whatever latest wave of “reforms.”

So far as the purpose of education is to instruct, the old ways are best. One feeds to the young blossoming rational minds by teaching “this is this and that is that”; the more pellucidly the better. It doesn’t have to be painful, unless one or another of the parties to the transaction insists on introducing pain. It can, with some sense, easily be made joyous and entertaining.

My point is here that the young learner knows where he stands. Either he is mastering the material, or he is not. What he may happen to think of the material is of no consequence. For the purpose of being instructed, his task is to play the game.

“Critical thinking” in the young should never be encouraged. Indeed, I have never seen it develop unless it was actively suppressed. To teach the kids to question everything they are taught is to sabotage their faculties, to idiotize them — and the savage, arrogant, drooling stupidity of the typical Ontario high school graduate today (or post-doctoral, when it comes to that) attests to the catastrophic error behind all modern educational thought.

I should like to put that more warmly. The corpse of John Dewey should be dug up, and then drawn and quartered.

But back to the catechism class. With those older, passing into adolescence, when the human capacity for rote learning begins to fade, and the small child’s seemingly miraculous ability to acquire languages and motor skills has been lost forever, so that all such tasks become a grind, the techniques of instruction must adapt. “Class discussion” becomes increasingly important, and the Socratic method begins to cut in.

One of my ardent catechism teachers seemed, at least by her own account, quite talented in handling this device, by which the kids figure out the answers for themselves. The teacher’s rôle now becomes keeping them on topic, steering them forward along a prescribed path; abetting curiosity where it can be useful, and crushing it where it cannot.

As she said, “Catholic teaching is by its nature quite appealing to teenage kids, from the moment the penny drops for them, and they realize that it all makes sense.” One principle leads naturally to another, the last helping to display the reasoning in the next. According to my informant, all she has to do is to continuously enforce, or merely remind of, the very first rational principle. That would be the principle of non-contradiction.

The premiss on which the whole argument began is, of course, not rationally demonstrable. It is a revelation. “For God so loved the world, as to give his only-begotten Son: that whosoever believeth in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.” Note that the Bible comes into this somewhere after the beginning: for this premiss was grasped before any Gospel was written. In the Catholic catechism, we are teaching not, in itself, the faith in Christ Jesus, but the ramifications of that faith. The faith itself is more primal.

Upon that revealed truth, unfolded in Christ’s own teaching, and all He came to fulfil, and all He assigned to the rock of Peter, the catechism is erected. It is a rule-book, in a sense. It is systematic and ordered, but it is not the thing itself. “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” The catechism itself takes note of this, in the letter. The rules of this rule-book are far from unimportant; they are vital to the foundation of wisdom. But the end of life is not to follow rules.

In this intensely secular age, I might as well draw an analogy to secular teaching. Physics is a bunch of vital rules, taught as laws and their application. But the pursuit of physics is not confined to rules. It seeks beyond them. It does not try to contradict the rules, but to develop them, where they follow. The student is not taught to have a critical mind towards, say, the existence of gravity. So long as he does not float up in the air, he takes that much for granted. The “laws” of physics are not altered, but refined, by each new discovery; apparent exceptions to them are patiently explained. They pertain to our universe. But that universe itself is under no obligation to obey the rules set by physicists. The teacher-pupil relationship goes entirely the other way.

Returning now to the life and soul of a human being — something in itself larger than the universe, for it is cannot be confined to the Creation we can sense — the question of how to live and what to do is guided forward. We need a rational understanding of the rules, but beyond this we need to take them, as it were, beyond the rational understanding, and into an intuitive or as I will today call it, a visceral understanding of what they are. It is not good enough to be able to recite chapter and verse. One must live the very spirit of the thing.

An example would be the sanctity of human life. Once it is grasped that it is wrong to kill people, as a way to solve your problems, and that a human is human from the moment he is conceived, opposition to abortion naturally follows. That is why it is incumbent on every faithful Catholic to oppose abortion, as he would otherwise oppose murder. This can’t be optional. It is incumbent, too, on every other one of us: on every Christian, and as it happens, on every decent human being regardless of religious affiliation. For in every other religious tradition of which I am aware, the sanctity of life is in some way affirmed. Even the Dalai Lama will tell you that abortion is evil, and against divine law.

Similarly, once some notion of the connexion between sex and babies has been grasped, it is no longer possible to dismiss moral guidance. Nothing so elemental to the condition of human life than our means of reproduction could be otherwise than shouting with moral significance; and far from being a side issue, sexuality is at the heart of all human relations.

The contemporary teaching that it is merely a source of pleasure — so incredibly crass — has consequences that are unambiguously evil. Consequences that can be spelt out rationally, step by frigging step. Which were in fact spelt out, very rationally, in Humanae Vitae, by the late Pope Paul. (I know this because as a clever young atheist, I read it through repeatedly, with the intention of mocking it; and could find in it not one connective that was logically unsound, and became thereby convinced, even as an aspiring young Helot, that contraception could not possibly be correct.) A rule remains a rule, and continues to be a rule, until someone can show an internal contradiction.

And in the depths, likewise, the principle of marriage must still be affirmed, no matter how many of the mad may oppose it. One woman and one man must be courageously vindicated. Deep, and deeper than that.


While it has entirely escaped media attention, the most massive public demonstrations on this continent are pretty much invariably the various annual marches against abortion — in which I have observed that females outnumber males, and the young outnumber the old, often by quite large margins. For the mainstream media, ten sign-waving feminist old crows can be important breaking news. But ten thousand marching young women, proclaiming Christian truth to their indifferent surroundings, does not quite rise to sending a junior reporter. This is how things are, and it is that craven media that impinges on public consciousness hour by hour, and day by day, de-moralizing and corrupting.

From my own experience on the pro-life “front line,” for instance walking along with fifteen thousand or more mostly young people in Ottawa a couple of years ago — and past e.g. the CBC television stand, whose cameras were trained on a small handful of old-crow feminist counter-demonstrators for the footage they would actually be using — I should like to make an observation.

First, a joyous observation, of how invigorating it was, to be in the company of so many ebullient and purposeful young. These were, in the main, the products of the catechism classes I was mentioning above: bright and cheerful young faces in contrast with the grim and cheerless I pass on the sidewalks every day. The same comment for events such as the Papal Youth Days, when quite literally millions of the children of good Catholic homes, or converts, are assembled. I wish to say about them nothing snide, but rather how much I love them.

At the Rose Dinner, in Ottawa, in the evening after the spring pro-life march, I had the opportunity to speak with quite a few of my much younger companions in arms. And again: they were impressive, case by case, as I was coming to see them not as a mass, but as many fine and particular faces, each already with a complex life story, and not one an interchangeable happy-clap zombie, of the sort the media stereotype portrays — though not entirely from malice. (In my experience, the overwhelming majority of journalists belong to a self-consciously brahmin, “progressive” social class, which eschews contact with those it considers “lower,” i.e. the worker bees and water-carriers of the “flyover country,” whose views could hardly matter to them.)

They were young, very young to my now ageing eyes, but in their ebullience we are all made timeless. Not only did I converse, I overheard them chatting about what “young people” chat about, as everyone chats: from out of the fodder of their daily lives. And in this mush, I heard so many of the clichés of the media also being mindlessly repeated, and saw the flip gestures that go with them. They, too, had inherited the wind from a godless society, and blew the wind on without even thinking. They had thought through their principles, and were basically obedient, as most young people are — whether it is to authority or to fashion. Still, do they have the deeper instinct, and the fortitude with the instinct, sometimes not to obey? To stand alone, under real and excruciating peer pressure, without external support, against the overpowering Zeitgeist?

And it was more in overhearing little unthinking remarks that I inwardly wept for them.

To be sure, they had the rules down. I did not meet one who could not articulately expound why he (or more usually she) was “protesting” against abortion. Yet that very word “protesting” gave part of the game away.

Nor really do I think that there was one whose firm belief was not rooted in the connexion between sex and babies. Nor, possibly, even one who did not therefore follow the connexions on through a range of other Christian teachings. They’d been taught, well enough.

Yet still there was something that seemed missing from them; something that curiously had not yet gone entirely missing, even from the hippies who were my own contemporaries in youth — self-conscious “fashion hippies” who had inherited many more of the “social conventions” and “unquestioned beliefs” of their “square” post-war parents than they could ever realize.

“Rules” were being “questioned,” way back then. And yet, viscerally, they were still being followed. The profound idea of “one man, one woman” was often outwardly rejected, even volubly rejected, but it was still viscerally there. It would take another generation of media indoctrination, lewd commercial advertising, and the ministrations of Nanny State, to root the very instincts of Western Civilization out of their souls and bowels. All that my own generation had lost, in the first instance, was the power of resistance, founded ultimately on those old unquestioned rules that told one through one’s conscience when one was doing wrong.

But more than this: told one through the same conscience when one was doing right. And sometimes, filled the soul with some distant echo of a pleasure, that was our Lord’s pleasure in the creation of His world.

Conscience still exists, however poorly formed, or twisted. The propensity to guilt will always be there, so long as we are human. As well, the propensity to moral satisfaction, however twisted that becomes. But what one ought to feel sorry for, or badly about, or thoroughly ashamed by, can be quite substantially altered by the intervention of ceaseless propaganda, and ruthless fashion, and the inversion of a system of reward and punishment through the social engineering of the State.


Let me end this note, on sex. By which I mean what the heartless might call animal copulation. I am thinking now of overheard remarks, which touched directly on this subject. The rules guiding sexual activity were perfectly, or nearly perfectly understood. Yet in chance remarks, young men and women alike revealed that they had also bought into the pleasure principle. The killer, for me, was a young lady who spoke of “flirting” in terms of wearing a sexy little black dress. It was not flirting with a man, but flirting with men in general. And the terms of flirtation were purely sexual.

I must be clear on this, for what I am saying can be so easily misconstrued today. I’m not complaining about the dress. In fact I thought there was humour in it: a mischievous spirit going quite deliciously “over the top,” and very clear on the fact that she was a woman. (Fashion standards change.) What struck me was rather the way she used the word “flirting,” and everything implied by it. It wasn’t just youthful mischief, that is alive. It passed so casually over the boundary into “mischief with intent.” Sex, for this girl, was essentially unerotic. It was instead pneumatic.

Now, the “hippie chicks” of my own youth usually dressed more covered than their own mothers. I remember, and could prove from photographs, wild costumes that ran right up their necks, and flounced in almost Victorian skirting, right down to their ankles. (And the excruciating beauty of their bare feet.) And I can remember flirtation in the turn of an eye, a subtly directed smile, or a hand gently tapping my forearm, to get my full conversational attention. They were still girls, in some meaningful way, lost today not only on the soi-disant “liberated,” but on everybody. They had not reduced themselves to gym equipment.

As I say, I was hippie generation myself. Already in rebellion against the hippies, perhaps, but still of their world and frequent company; and therefore am qualified to speak for myself, as a representative boy of that age; for I knew many others like me. And I can remember my own, very highly charged, late adolescent male sexuality. I can remember: “I will sweep her up in my arms, and carry her off to be the mother of my children.” This was profoundly sexual, profoundly erotic. And note, at the heart of this passion, the instinctive connexion of sex to babies; instinctive and essentially pre-rational. It was visceral; it was not “just an idea” or a rule, which I could formulate as well as the next guy, and toss around whether I believed it or not. It was the very spirit that the letter killeth.

And this, it seems to me, is the challenge that comes to us today. How do we restore not only the moral principle as a matter of taught fact, but the soul of that principle? How, if you will, can we teach them to read the Song of Songs, without snickering?

The mystery of the thing

My last essay on this website was a complete dog, as I came to realize when one of my Commentariat trained my attention on a single flippant word, and rubbed my nose in it. That word was “sell,” in the colloquial sense of “advertise,” and I was using it to construct a defence of Pope Francis’s efforts to pitch the message of the Church in a world where what the Church is, and what the Church does, must be incomprehensible.

And what is more, the very idea of offering a defence repeated my core error: that the Truth can in any way be sold, or advertised, or let us say, argued. My brief attempt to explain myself made my position worse, for I tried to read our excruciatingly modern idea of publicity backwards into the history of the Church, and to her Founder. This required in its turn a false distinction between “the inside” and “the outside” of what was imagined as a cathedral.

The truth is rightly “proclaimed,” and not argued. The very Truth, and the subsidiary truths which the Church proclaims — about the nature of man and the world, the moral and spiritual order, history and futurity — are in their nature not “arguable,” on worldly terms. They are explained in Catholic apologetic, and organized theologically, exhibited in myriad acts of sanctity and holiness, exhorted indeed, but all of these essentially prior to “argument” as it is understood in the marketplace. They are received in faith, or not received: no empirical science can either establish or refute what is prior to sensory observation. On empirical principles, the plausibility of Scripture and Tradition may be established, but that is fussing with externals. They are what they are, Christ is what He Is — revealed. Such things can’t be analyzed in our modern, post-Cartesian, “scientific” way, in which we shuffle bundles of attributes like sticks or straws or counters or cards, assigning each as we pass some face value, and totalling at the end.

I am trying to say something that is very difficult to understand, in the world as it is today — at least, so difficult that I have slipped on it myself — so bear with me if you will.

We have come to believe in a material reality that is less than a house of cards. Truth to us is a series of self-evident propositions assembled in a logically coherent order. The cards, as it were, lend support to each other, and stand or fall depending how they are stacked. We carry a mental picture of the world corresponding to the assembled house of cards, with all its physical properties and the technique of its construction. Effect follows cause in a natural order that we assume to be rational, or self-consistent. (It “works,” pragmatically, because nature is in fact rational, or self-consistent, as it would be if created by the God Whom the Christians proclaim; however, that is just another argument.)

But what if it were not? The house of cards falls down. It has been built entirely on the premiss that it could be built — in other words, “on faith,” beginning with our postulate of solid ground. It vindicates that faith by standing. But it cannot begin to explain that faith, or “predict” what is prior to cause and effect. Nor even on its own premiss can our house of cards be built very high — can it be made, as it were, a stairway up to heaven.

Or consider it as the Tower of Babel of which we read in the Book of Genesis: a fascinating story for us because it describes exactly the motive on which our own, integrated, “globalized” world order is being constructed, to the glory of mankind. It totters, yet we continue building, because the withdrawal of our faith — in ourselves, founded on the solid ground of what seems a self-consistent material reality — is unthinkable. We have built it so high, and who is to tell us we cannot build it higher?

We have faith, of a kind, shaken sometimes even by minor earth tremors. We have faith vested essentially in a political order; in the belief that, where problems arise, they can be solved, and our “human spirit” (which is incidentally no material thing) will ultimately rise to the occasion. We are, in the voice of every political commander, “the people of this great nation,” and we are repeatedly assured that we will prevail.

Failing which, we fall into utter despair. For we have no other faith to fall back on, when the earth indeed trembles and our artificial tower comes tumbling down. And, whether or not it is in our strictest modern sense “historical,” the story of Babel in Genesis tells us what will be our fate.

“About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” This famous saying of Jeanne d’Arc will serve as a first dogmatic proclamation that is incomprehensible to us, and in its form, unsaleable. Given the faith we have placed instead in our Babel, we cannot possibly conceive of the Church, except as a humanly governed institution. It may even be impressive, as such; for we can accept that the works of humans can be quite impressive. A considerable propaganda affirms this within the political order, which by now has completely engulfed us.

The very possibility of a foundation in Christ, which Christ will not abandon, is inconceivable to our politicized “point of view.” Therefore, as humans, we imagine ourselves entitled to argue about the Church’s “message.” As a human institution, it could be better, it could rise higher, we could spread its foundation wider, this way or that. The officers of the Church should listen, weigh the arguments, decide on the best course. If “the old way is best,” fair enough, they should explain why they have decided to stick with it — make an argument, advertise, sell it to us. Or if they can’t, then it is back to the drawing board.

Christ, very God, and a “created” natural order, break all our rules. I have seen in the eyes of so many, that they are scandalized. On the charitable agnostic assumption that we, Christians, do actually believe what we are saying, they can only dismiss us as arrogant prospective tyrants, making undemonstrated “scientific” claims. There is no acceptable way for us to convince anybody.

And the truth is that we can’t — that no publicity campaign can do it. For the alternative faith, in God rather than man, does not come from man, cannot come from man, and therefore cannot come from us. It is Christ who converts, and we who merely get in His way, or get out of it. Of course, our modern instinct is to stand in His way: to say, “Listen to me.”

The Church herself cannot argue, can only be. She proclaims, “Take, eat, this is my body.” That is not a negotiable proposition. It cannot be “sold.” One may take, or one may not take, but what is being offered is not an argument. It is the thing itself.

Yes & no

“I am double-minded, actually.” The expression is among my favourites in Delhi English. It is not as easily translatable into standard mid-Atlantic as might first appear. It does not mean, for instance, “I cannot make up my mind between two irreconcilables.” Indeed, it has nothing to do with making up one’s mind, for it describes an enduring philosophical position. And anyway, the Indian mind is almost incapable of self-contradiction. It moves too quickly for that.

If, from my frankly barbaric and alien distance, I can grasp the true meaning, it would be something like: “You are trying to reduce a both/and proposition to an either/or, and I am on to you.” Now, add to that some sportive and humorous Punjabi self-deprecation, which makes Indians of the north and west more lovable than any other people in the world, except of course Italians.

I am double-minded, actually, about our current pope, and equally about his critics. By now, we Traddies all know the rap. He is playing to the gallery: using street-media language in a reckless way, to make the sort of statements that will appeal to the masses, arguably at the expense of the Mass. He’s a showman who, by abbreviating “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” to “Blessed are the poor,” is letting the liberation theologists back in the pantry door. He says, “Who am I to judge?” when that is exactly what he is paid for. He seems to be appointing the very sort of people we thought we’d finally seen the back of; and generally encouraging, whether or not by intention, the happy-slappies everywhere. Having rightly condemned the phenomenon of “airport bishops,” making casual sound-bite pronouncements on the fly, he is too often being one.

Let us be more pointed. A man who plays to the gallery — speaking in applause lines to an audience easily pleased — may appear to be soliciting praise for himself. And the voluble praise he is actually receiving, from various rather worldly sources, is vitiated by deprecation of his predecessors, and mockery of faithful Catholics. I’ve seen enough at first hand to know the people he most pleases are not well-disposed to received Catholic teaching. In particular, Benedict XVI is frequently held up to invidious comparison. The pope cannot intend this; but should study cause and effect.

I am myself a Johnny-come-lately, of only ten years’ standing in the Church, but all my adult life I’ve had friends who were battle-axe Catholics, enduring with our Lord the humiliations to Him and to them that were imposed after Vatican II, through liturgical “reforms” that desecrated the Mass. For those with some culture and literary refinement, the awkward and illiterate translations of the ICEL committees made attendance at Mass in English exceptionally painful. Many, many were driven out of the Church, as the integrity and continuity of the Roman tradition appeared to have been compromised. But many others grimly watched it out, refusing to leave the Desolate City. Through decades, those seeking permission to sing the Old Mass, endured further humiliations from unsympathetic bishops, who looked upon their most faithful as rebels to the bureaucratic order, and upon jackasses with their clowns and guitars as the vanguard of fashion.

An outsider can only begin to imagine the joy that was felt, when Benedict published “motu proprio” his Summorum Pontificum in 2007 — freeing priests around the world to sing the Old Mass wherever it was wanted, and putting it on a par with the post-Vatican II vernacular — “two usages of the one Roman rite.” The notion that the usus antiquior was wanted only by geriatrics suffering nostalgia can be easily dismissed. After half-a-century most of those who could remember it as the norm were dead, anyway; it is actually the younger and the spiritually hungrier who thirst for restoration of reverence in the Mass, and for the recovery of the long and very deep musical, poetical, and artistic traditions which once held all the Roman peoples together.

The new pope’s off-the-cuff remarks to the effect that this thirst is a kind of idolatry, struck a savage blow against a wound yet unhealed. His prompt action to forbid the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate from singing the Old Mass — some eight hundred denied for the alleged extreme traditionalism of perhaps six members — set a precedent for actually rolling back what Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum had unambiguously promised.

Yet what the new pope is doing, in addressing the outside world, is to my mind actually a good thing. If he has the charisma — in the old sense — let him go out and sell. The Church is in the business of the salvation of souls, and not a club for the elect; and Christ is not King of a religious denomination, but in Eternity. His message is to every man and woman born, and if Pope Francis has the gift to communicate His message to people otherwise unable to hear, he is doing the work of Heaven. Christ himself sent off his Apostles to the ends of the earth; and the task of evangelism was never restricted to them. Every Catholic carries it as a duty, to spread the Word.

Moreover, the pope is quite right that this should not consist of proselytizing, in the narrowest sense. There is a place for apologetic argument, and of course for catechizing those who come to us. There is a place for compelling language and gesture, directed personally to those whom we love. But banter and argument will never win over souls prejudiced from the start against the Church and her teachings. It is the power of prayer and holiness, instead — in more worldly terms, the power of example — which alone can break through. And here I think Pope Francis is exemplary; and the spontaneous way in which he sets his examples is thrilling, at least to me. There can be no possible question of his sincerity and earnestness, as a player upon the public stage. Moreover, he is joyful: a very sure sign of Christian integrity. He loves, and he wants to tear down obstacles.

One focused point I want to make about this pope. It seems to me he understands that gallery he is addressing, in a rather subtle way. He knows the issue is faith, not belief, and he knows this at a specific wavelength. He knows that people are troubled. He knows, as they often do not in their own self-understanding, that they fear God in their hearts. He knows that, behind outward show of empty pride, they are seeking forgiveness. He has actually been pointing, not first to the Mass, but first to the Confessional. I don’t think my traditionalist friends have given him their hearing on this.

So I am doubly double-minded.

There is an inside and an outside to the Church in this world. Conceive this as a Gothic cathedral, in which the two are communicating by light. The world is outside, but inside the Host. The spaces are communicating, but not interchangeable. The whole narrative of the creation and the salvation is arrayed in the statuary of the outside; on the inside the line of sight is conducted towards the altar. The teaching and “belief” of Christianity are subsumed in the mystery of the Cross. As in the ancient Temple at Jerusalem, and its orientation towards the Holy of Holies, our universe enfolds, turning from the large outside into smaller and smaller spaces. We are looking from the expansive finitude of this world, as if towards and through the eye of a needle, to an infinitude beyond. We are looking from our mortality into immortality.

Too much from the outside came inside after Vatican II. Too little inside has gone out again. It was not simply the Old Latin Mass that needed to be restored, but as Pope Benedict plainly said, the very reverence to the sanctuary it taught by its example. The New Mass itself needed reforming by juxtaposition with the Old, and the “reform of the reform” of the New he set in motion has indeed been bearing fruit.

There is no room inside for a gallery to play to; the homily itself is not meant to preach like that, but rather to explain in the simplest possible terms. Exhortation belongs to the commotion outside; we, the people who have come to participate in the Sacrifice of the Mass, no longer need to be exhorted. The pope, to this way of presenting the matter, has a two-fold rôle, in his evangelical part addressing the world, in his priestly part defending that altar. This is not an either/or proposition. Outside, he must turn to the people; inside, he must turn, with us, towards our Lord.

Anatomy of the January blues

If there is one use for the calendrical New Year, it is provided, unintentionally, through the media, and through the accidents of social life. Towards the end of the old year, and bleeding into the new, we are exposed to a higher density of “signs of the times” than at any other time of year. Partly this is a by-product of the media habit of looking backward and forward: precisely twelve months back and twelve months fore. It is an arbitrary thing, but usually their cycle is twenty-four hours, or less with the advance of consumer electronics. Christmas, now for many years an essentially secular holiday, with little pretense of Christian thanksgiving but a modicum of “traditional” good cheer, adds more to this density. In some moments, even for those whose Christian affiliation evaporated before childhood, there are juxtapositions, contrasts.

In the media, or if you will, at a Christmas Party, or on New Year’s Eve, a lot of human experience can be compacted into a very small space, and much quickly passes before our eyes and ears. One has glimpses of the radical opposition between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, the true and the false, exhibited as if on signboards that anyone can read.

There is, especially in cold northern countries, a kind of post-partum depression that sets in after the holidays have passed. The weather plays some part in this: we who live in the vast conurbations do not look with relish on the next few months. In the countryside, a fresh snowfall can be uplifting; can be the making, for instance, of a “white Christmas”; in the city it can only mean service delays, traffic hell, dangerous sidewalks. The let-down after excessive eating and drinking comes into this, too: the sense that the party is over, and it is back to work for us.

But I think something deeper also contributes to our sense, however mildly it is taken, of emptiness, loneliness, hopelessness.

Even if we were not looking, we saw something in passing, and it haunts us still. Perhaps it was a vision of old age, in a season when long past memories were rekindled, and people were remembered who are no longer here. For that memento mori becomes a part of the “twelve days of Christmas,” as the years pile on. And with the summoning of memory comes the summoning of sorrows, especially sorrow in irretrievable events. (A woman weeping outside the nursing home, six months ago: “How many stupid last words I said, when all I wanted to say was, ‘I love you’.”)

But for the present the experience of “density” is enough. Something has passed by that we did not act upon. Something happened that we did not prevent. Something didn’t happen we had the power to make happen. Somehow, we missed it, when we had our chance. I would call this a form of “survivor’s guilt,” that exists within us at the metaphysical level, though confirmed in events, day after day.

To put this most plainly: we have seen good and evil, and not chosen the good; we have seen beauty and ugliness, and not chosen the beautiful; we have seen true and false, and not chosen the truth. We have chosen instead, with a grieving resignation, to “get on with it”; to play it safe; to avoid any kind of overreaction. Or as Christ put it, with spectacular poetry: we have taken our places with the dead, and are the dead, burying their dead.

It wasn’t a choice, according to most people. Just what were they supposed to do? “Most people” (the phrase itself makes me think of an ethnicity) did their bit, exactly as required. They weren’t late for work, even in the snowstorm. They did their shopping, bought their presents in time; they did not overlook anyone. Did not get hammered at the office party. Did not say anything to seriously regret. Suffered a few indignities without freaking. Blew the diet, perhaps, but they’ll soon be back on it.

How many people have said, “I am basically a good person,” without noticing that no one ever asked? And it is true that real monsters are a small minority, though I often think they are closer to being saved.

What we haven’t confronted, is that very emptiness, that loneliness, that hopelessness — together with the self-pity that explains it all away. For the modern man is a childless orphan, and the modern woman is a modern man, and this goes double when they are married to each other.

It is not that we did not see. I don’t think that excuse will hold for anyone. A policeman, from a former generation on the mean streets of New York, put this very nicely with his pet aphorism: “There is no such thing as an innocent bystander.”

And what is true with any subtlety is true in the overt, as I’m reminded by a video from the New York Daily News. It shows people stepping over the expiring body of a man freshly shot in a shop doorway, and the cashier continuing to process his sales, through the five minutes before some Good Samaritan decided to call emergency services on his cellphone. …

But what of that? Such events elicit attention only because they turn up the volume on our background noise.

And that is anyway not what we saw, or even if we did see it, only part of what we saw. Instead, there is something larger: how can it be described? For we saw it as if in fragments, glimpsed it as if through pickets in a fence, somewhere to the side of where we were looking as we went along our way. Our mind was elsewhere, and it remains elsewhere: saddened, and yet we don’t know why. (For there was light there, too, it wasn’t only darkness.)

I had a dream like this, the other evening. A baby was lying in the snow and slush. He’d been left there, accidentally discarded. People were busy, they were passing him by. I thought, he is cold, he has fallen on the sidewalk. Some woman must have dropped him on her way home. She’ll want to have him back, I must get him to her. But it was Christmas, there were legs on all these shoppers; the baby on the sidewalk kept sliding out of reach. I was trying to tell them, but no one could hear me; I could not even hear myself. Why can’t these people see there is a baby? A living baby, right at their feet? Why does no one stop for this baby, why doesn’t someone pick him up? And I awoke, thinking, “Jesus!”

But what I refer to is not a dream.