Essays in Idleness


The necessary angel

It has been the Feast of Saint Michael and all Angels today, with all that we associate with that, in Christendom. One cannot be Christian and deny that angels exist: the most literal will find several actually named in the Bible (Old Testament and New), and their messages received, and their presences acknowledged, page after page. Their choirs ascend, in greater and greater proximity to God in the highest: Angels, Archangels, Principalities; Powers, Virtues, Dominations; Thrones, Cherubim, Seraphim.

There was a post on this topic one year ago. I tried to supply a suitable affront to the contemporary mind, which is indifferent to angels. Merely to mention them is probably enough, to set scientistic eyeballs rolling. The more poetic will accept them as figures of speech. But let us insist on a religious hard line: that angels be not only publicly recognized, but deferred to in their spiritual place, delectated in the liturgical order, and comprehended as Beings about whom we can know little, but much more than nothing.

In his poem, “The Necessary Angel,” written by an atheist about to lose his faith, Wallace Stevens accepts “the Angel” as metaphor, needed to save reality from cliché; then comes so close to prophetically accepting that angel itself as real, that he makes the reader’s hair stand on end. (He died Catholic, to the scandal of his wife, daughter, and the extended tribe of his liberal-agnostic admirers.) By reason alone, that is as close as one may come to angels.

In Christian teaching, the angels were created, as we were created; but prior to, or before us. They defeat our conceptions of space and time. But Love itself defeats our conceptions, and Faith and Hope are anchored in an Eternity that remains bottomlessly mysterious to our human minds — richly repaying contemplation, but solving no riddles. For a Mystery is not a riddle or puzzle, with a set answer waiting overleaf; and our modern attempts at this sort of reductionism all end in farce. Our own Being is anchored in Mystery, and what can we do about it?

As I grow older, I become more amazed by the “materialism” that must necessarily deny its own foundation; which cannot account for the primal existence of a single particle within the void. What once seemed merely glib, now strikes me as more deeply monstrous: a purposeful refusal of Grace.


I haven’t mentioned Darwinism in a while, let me dredge it back up.

There will be no comprehension of “the origin of species” unless we accept the reality of angels. William Blake came closer than Darwin, to an understanding of evolutionary process, in his depiction of the Soul of a Flea. From the Bible itself, and from early Christian literature, we receive a sense of the angels, assigned to their places in the cosmic order of things. (Consider, for instance, Saint Paul at Troas, receiving the “man of Macedonia,” in Acts XVI.) What Plato conceived as “forms,” Christians have perhaps discerned as “angels,” in their nested hierarchies. It could be said that they are “living forms.” That would not exhaust what could be said, but might serve as an orienting start. For in any broad view of things as they actually are — of the universe as we may perceive it — the place of the angels must not be overlooked.

I had a dream or “vision” of this once, which I will exchange for a small share of public ridicule. It had to do with the lemurs endemic to Madagascar, who filled the forest niches of that island near to, and yet isolated from, the great continent of Africa. Over the last sixty million years or so, they came to range over that large island: from wee “mouse” lemurs, barely an ounce in weight, to others (only recently extinct) on the scale of gorillas. For all this variety, each is unmistakably a lemur, perfectly adapted to its habitat.

In my dream I imagined the operation of an “Angel of Lemurs,” among God’s messengers to that place. I imagined that Angel, by whose higher and exalted consciousness each new forest niche was detected, as it appeared or developed in the unfolding narrative, told in earthly flesh by the descending choirs, and innumerable other agencies of the Divine Will. I imagined this Angel presiding over the metamorphoses of the lemur clade, filling each opening corner with another of these creatures, and therefore with its irreducible joy in the echo of its Maker; or parting one species from another to serve the forest in its overlapping heights, and from its variously breathing angles; and then withdrawing each species of lemur in its turn, upon the completion of its season, and place or station in the dance of Time. And the Angel itself: as perfect expression of the godly idea of lemur-ness, bearing the spiritual countenance of the Lemur-before-all-lemurs. And likewise I imagined the descent of the lesser Lemurian Angels: the guardians of these animals in each kind, and bearers of God’s love towards them, “telescoping” from that guardian spirit of all lemurs, through the wormholes of space and time.

And then, the tribes of primitive men who, living undisturbed in this place before its despoliation, honoured and instinctively propitiated these angels — because their ability to know them had not yet bled away. Who knew them in ways that could not be explained, to those who honour nothing; who understand nothing, and cherish nothing, and therefore despoil everything they touch. (As I write, I am listening to their jackhammers.)

The incredibly subtle and complex, yet often sudden adaptation of old species to new niche, cannot “just happen” — as we know a coin will not land consecutive heads, a million million times. Not ever, within a universe that was itself expressed into Being less than fourteen billion years ago — with all of its potentialities presented in a singular moment. A larger intelligence must not only invent but coordinate, as I imagine: provide the metaphysical “RNA” to choreograph the supernatural dance, from the boldest outward attributes of impossibly gigantic and sophisticated creatures, down to the finest flections within the molecules from which they have been composed. And from this we may reasonably infer the action of angelic forces.

Which cannot be studied by the dead reckoning of empirical science because — in biology, or even chemistry sometimes — we are not dealing with simple, predictable “laws of nature,” rather with living, sentient powers; with Beings, who turn and act according to a nature that is not ours, nor answerable to our wishes. Who cannot be approached, except by supernatural means. We may trace effects, solve technical puzzles, to the modest limits of empirical science; but above and beneath and beyond lie angels.

The world in small

Commending the works of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, in an article that was really about something else (see here), I mentioned the SMOM’s stamp issuing authority.

The Poste Magistrali was established as a modern postal administration only in 1966, but a philatelic survey would have to review a much longer history of mail delivery, as a function of the SMOM, attestable to the early XVIth century, and probably going back to the Crusades. Couriers have, after all, been employed by every sovereign order. Postage stamps were invented in England so recently as 1840, as a convenience; but in one form or another, the mails were being delivered in ancient Rome, Greece, and Persia; in Babylon and Egypt; in the Indus civilization, the Mauryan, across China, and everywhere else authority has been exercised on larger than the tribal scale. (From this information alone, we can see that the Internet is a shocking novelty, and guess that its implications go well beyond what we can discern or imagine.)

As a lad, in wonderfully backward British schools in Asia, I began seriously to collect and trade stamps. This was not really an option. All boys were expected to collect stamps, and those who tried to avoid the hobby were marked as dangerously odd. Other deficiencies — moral, material, spiritual, and intellectual — could be overlooked in a boy, but one who did not collect stamps was confessing to a more fundamental weirdness. This is because, I think, the collecting impulse is itself fundamental to human nature — especially, masculine human nature, and we are talking boy schools here. And, stamps and coins were until recently the most obviously collectible artefacts of human manufacture. Which is to say nothing against the collection of butterflies, or beetles, or books into vast libraries.

Or, works of art. “The aesthetic” was, from the beginning, my principal attraction to stamps, though it took some time for me to appreciate that it was. By mimicry, I quickly acquired the lust to complete a set. If a set of stamps had four members, and I had three of them, I could not rest until I’d acquired the fourth, no matter what its condition, or how unpleasant the underlying design.

I suspect this is at the root of the bureaucratic impulse. It is to complete, to collect everything that can be collected, to regularize and schematize the collection, and eventually to make everything the same. Nothing offends the sensibility of the bureaucratic soul so much as an omission, or an exception. It disturbs his sleep.

Towards the end of my boyhood, and with the help of my father, whose preaching on this topic I took to heart, my own views “evolved.” I developed the concept that certain stamps were TUTO (“too ugly to own”). Not simply stamps, but stamps beautifully designed, skilfully and ingeniously engraved (or sometimes typographed, or lithographed) called to me, cor ad cor. Had I a set of four, and three exquisite, but the fourth a poorly executed afterthought, I would actually get rid of that fourth. And I learned to take pleasure in the riddance. (This is how I became an “editor.”)

It was my great grandfather who began soaking stamps off envelopes; the man to whom I owe thanks for having provided a miscellaneous mound of Canadian orange three-cent “small Victorias” from which, many decades later, I was able to extract an inspiring range of local post office cancellations. His son, my grandfather, the cartographer and illuminator, became a systematic and obsessive collector, and evangelist for the hobby, which he pressed upon each of his innumerable children and grandchildren. My father’s mounted collection ends suddenly in 1940, when in an instant he stopped being a boy in a world at war; I keep it intact as a memento of his childhood. I, for my part, have never been able to shake off a kind of irrational exhilaration, at the discovery of a stamp shop or a stamp fair. My sons, however, escaped this fascination, despite my best efforts to enchant them. Alas, though fine upstanding young men, they were born into the age of email; an age too busy for truth, goodness, beauty, or the chaste solitude they often command.

Let me say that the quality of the SMOM’s stamps is not very impressive. I see missed opportunities in almost all their issues. Inflation now governs the world, and while conventional post offices are everywhere in recession, approaching bankruptcy, the number of new stamp issues constantly increases from almost all of them. This is for the most part a cynical effort to obtain a (diminishing) revenue from the (dwindling) horde of naïve stamp collectors; sometimes (as in the SMOM’s case) for charitable purposes. Hardly anyone puts stamps on letters, and even bills are now paid online.

Somewhere around 1970 (a little sooner or later, depending on the country), engraving was replaced with “modern offset printing” by almost every stamp issuing authority, and by now, at least ninety-nine new stamps in each hundred are complete rubbish — as may be seen immediately through any 5X magnifying glass. Instead of a finely executed, tiny work of art, which will acquire patina with age, you have under your nose what might as well be a square inch cut from a glossy magazine: a meaningless slur of tiny, multicoloured dots. Whereas, every minuscule stroke in an engraved stamp adds to, or subtracts from, its aesthetic meaning, and is potentially a delight in itself. For art is not a mash. Every gesture is significant.

What we see in stamps is generally the case whenever human handicraft is obviated by large-scale machine production. A world that has quite consciously discarded civilizational values, and replaced them with ruthless economic calculations, degrades everything it touches, and industriously replaces the authentic with the fake. It actually takes pride in doing this. Socialists and capitalists alike share in competitive zeal, as they seek out “the lowest common denominator.”

I thrill to examples of resistance, however quixotic they may be. The French, the Austrians, several Scandinavian countries, Italians, Germans, and some others from time to time, have mounted rearguard actions, sticking with or reverting to engraved stamps, in some cases even to the present day. The Czechs, even under Communist rule, were regularly issuing stamps of the highest craft standards, magnificent design, and genial spirit. All these authorities also issued garbage stamps, to keep up with the times; and the trend is certainly towards the bureaucratic consistency of all-garbage. Yet by the grace of God, some of the greatest stamp engravers have flourished within the last two generations, their art still in (shrinking) demand.

The Pole, Czesław Słania, died 2005, is widely appreciated as “the Picasso of stamp engraving”; the Austrian, Wolfgang Seidel, always takes my breath away; perhaps the Norwegian, Martin Mörck, is the most talented stamp engraver still fully active; but there are several dozen other living or only recently deceased stamp engravers, including an admirable disproportion of Frenchmen (and a couple of women), quite incapable of producing inferior or prostituted work. Yves Baril is, incidentally, the name of our greatest Canadian stamp engraver.

Let me add, before resuming my silence, that it was through stamp collecting that I absorbed the outline history of the (post-1840) modern world, and indirectly acquired many of my views on subjects superficially removed. For instance, I early developed an aversion to “propaganda stamps,” together with an awareness that they were not restricted to formally totalitarian regimes. I could say that my whole view of the evil of Statism, and the Nationalism on which it feeds, began with a mysterious distaste for certain kinds of commemorative stamp, as commonly produced in the United States as in the Soviet Union. My very preference for monarchic over republican constitutional orders may follow from the triteness and narrow, jingo viciousness displayed in the stamps of most republican regimes. And with that, a perception that the handmaid of our post-modern inflation — not only of money but in every other aspect of our lives — is the cancerous growth of Ideology. On a planetary scale it has been, with growing confidence, subverting and destroying Religion. Political ideology turns men away from the grace of God, and instead towards “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and all the poppycock and hogwash that flows from that. By accelerating increments, God is rejected, and Satan embraced.

But that is a larger topic.

The Braveheart chronicles

Before voting in the referendum on secession from the United Kingdom, Pat Robertson implored ye Scots to ask, “What would Braveheart do?”

For an opponent of “democracy,” I spend too much time studying election results. I see that “No” swept all the old Gaelic and rural constituencies; and Aberdeen, where they have some private enterprise; and Edinburgh, where many of the inhabitants are educated. Dundee, however, broke from the pack, and voted “Yes” by a margin. (It is the Fallujah of Scotland.) And of course, “Yes” took Glasgow and Environs, where half the population are psychotic (regardless of race, creed, colour, or political affiliation).

Like most pseudo-Scots, I was for “Yes” myself; especially after Mr Fish Eyes assured us that he’d keep the Queen. I gave my reasons last week: essentially, the more flags the better. Did not even ask for the return of the Stuarts.

Indeed, the referendum result is a disaster. In return for the scare, Westminster politicians of all stripes now plan more tampering with the British Constitution. More “devolution” as they call it, by which they mean, more bureaucratic layering. And the Scots have learnt what our Quebeckers taught themselves: that the threat of secession may be used to make them pull their spigots and vent their welfare casks.

The sight of the Lairds of London telling ye Scots how much they love them, and making their expensive promises — on behalf of English, Welsh, and Orange Irish who had not been consulted — is what we should retain as “the lesson of democracy.” It is government by sleazy politicians. Braveheart would have slain the lot.

Morbid happiness

An item on the Beeb alerted me to the fact that the Danes have — yet again — scored highest in some international measurement of happiness levels. Gentle reader read that correctly: the Danes. I do not, as the same reader will know, take much delight in statistics, and so am inclined to manifest scepticism. I do not know, for instance, whether an objective test of happiness (the murder rate), or the corresponding subjective test (the suicide rate), will confirm the surveyors’ findings. The Danes may consistently say they are happy, but are they really? And if it is so, why?

My own anecdotal approach is at odds with the methodology of the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, but there you go. The Danes I have met are, even in the aggregate, statistically unrepresentative. Therefore my observation, that Danes tend to be less playful than Germans, more dour than Scotsmen, and cautious like Swedes, may be dismissed as the product of bigotry. (I have enjoyed their company, nonetheless.) The one truly happy Dane I met seemed pleased mostly by his distance from Denmark (we were somewhere in East Asia at the time). He assured me that his countrymen wouldn’t recognize “fun” if it dribbled all over them. I have heard Copenhagen compared to Ottawa. I would have thought the whole point of Nordicity, or Northernness, after all, is the mastery of indifference to merriment.

But then, happiness would seem to be defined by the UN happiness bureaucracy as “self-satisfaction.” This means high points for smug. It could explain why, for instance, the Italians, who still do “merry” by unlapsed Catholic instinct, and have no very high opinion of themselves, failed to score on the survey questions. They might not even have taken them seriously. There is a certain earnestness in the Northern psyche; I’m sure the Danes took the time to figure how to ace the test.

Oh dear, now I’ve gone and looked it up. As I suspected, the Danes are near the top of the world suicide table. They’re not actually at the top, but the countries ahead of them are just what you’d expect. Lithuania wins first place; it is amazing they have any people left. In their disposition to kill themselves, Baltic countries, and other Scandihoovians, are all competitive, with Russians. Bhutan is right up there, too, incidentally (I believe their government inspired the creation of the UN’s new happiness index); and the one mystery is how Canada fell behind the United States. I should have thought everyone knew what high latitudes do to the human soul, through the long winter nights. (Living permanently in the shadows of great mountains explains most of the other cases.) Humans were designed to sometimes feel the sun. Deprived of this, they work themselves slowly off their hinges.

But again, statistics don’t explain anything, and those which report what people think — especially what they think about themselves — are least likely to be useful. I don’t trust the correlations; even after explaining in the usual yawning way that correlation is not causation. The most you can hope from this pseudo-science is for a number to quote, as a mnemonic aid, to support some belief pattern. A random number would do as well, which is why most people with axes to grind simply make numbers up on the fly, then repeat them back and forth to each other until their friends in the media take up the mantra, and there are more little lies to buttress the big ones.

“Happiness” is anyway a vague concept. It had some meaning two or three centuries ago, when it suggested not only prosperity but the “fittingness” with which it had been achieved, so that a man who had earned his good station through work, foresight, and good living, would be thought happier than a man who had, say, just won the lottery. And, people not being all quite the same, happiness might take different forms in different individuals; thereby becoming unmeasurable in a final, categorical way. Nor could there be any need to measure it. Not so today, when the need to measure everything is taken as self-evident, and what can’t be measured is held to not exist.

The current sense assumes that happiness is indistinguishable from pleasure, and that it is therefore bestowed by some external agency — as when you do something, or go somewhere, that will make you happy. In the clip I saw, the BBC cameras took us straight to Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, by way of exhibiting this empty modern ideal. The presenter — gesticulating in that trademark, jackass, BBC way — then interviewed some smiling young student of sociology, who thinks the Danes must be happy thanks to their highly evolved welfare state. (To which one might add the loss of that old Bible-thumping premonition of eternal hellfire.)

I would instead suggest looking for an explanation in geology. From some shrink, writing in the New York Times, we learn that lithium levels vary in the local rock, and that considerable differences in human behaviour (as statistically indicated) may be attributed to local concentrations, carried in the water supply. Moreover, one may ask what else the people are drinking. For while lithium may have toxic and sometimes lethal effects in high doses and chloride form, it can be used more subtly. Apparently, Americans were much happier before 1950, when moderate doses of lithium were added quite purposefully to commercial soda drinks. That’s what put the “up” in “7-Up.”

Today, after the discovery of how useful lithium can be in helping to level, if not lobotomize, some of the more alarming “bipolar” cases, the proposal to add it methodically to the water supply, along with fluoride, is coming into vogue. It may soon be a “progressive” cause, such that no one will be asked to vote on it. What better way to deal with a general population which, thanks to the success of other progressive causes, is now going insane?

Pourquois pas, as they say. We may not realize this trace element is already present in the water, and in everything else — just as we do not realize that e.g. apples are mildly radioactive. This knowledge tends to be suppressed, to save us all from malades imaginaires — the hypochondrias and hysterias that overload our socialized health-care systems — until it is needed to promote some environmental scare. Unfortunately, the Internet has now pulled out all the stops, and people can scare themselves without organized assistance.

My speculation is that little Denmark may be sitting on peat strata with a remarkably high lithium concentration. This might explain a lot of things about Denmark — a world leader in ion-lithium battery technology.

Alternatively, one thinks of Mogens Schou, the Danish pioneer of modern psychopharmacology, who began testing the effects of lithium on his co-workers and many others back in 1949, on such a scale that one thing may have led to another. Perhaps the Danish authorities are secretly putting tonnes of lithium into the water supply, merely as an extension of Dr Schou’s research, not realizing that the man is dead and they can stop now.

There is, of course, a little problem with lithium as a catch-all cure for ambient mental illness, for while the “don’t worry be happy” response to increased lithium doses is a commonplace of current psychiatric medicine, it does not have the same effect on all customers. Some, reasonably tame before, flip right out upon receiving it. Others are inspired to feel better about themselves while committing major crimes. Yet the prevailing statistical utilitarianism continues to insist on “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and it is the presumption of modern technology that exceptional cases may be overlooked.


I can understand why Englishmen might support Scottish independence, but not why a Scotsman would do so. Scotland has been a dead weight on the English economy, and increasingly on the English psyche. It has a population overwhelmingly dependent upon government employment, contracts, and hand-outs. It has had, and may corner, the diminishing revenue of North Sea oilfields, but unearned wealth is a destructive force. It has much deeper “attitude problems,” for as everywhere Left politics have triumphed (and Scottish politics have long been a contest between Left, and more-Left), public spirit chokes in the collectivist sludge. Scotland has become a cultural as well as economic basket case, in which subsidies have reduced the arts to the service of tedious agitprop campaigns. It is a spiritual desert, in which even the driest Presbyterian traditions have been desiccated. England, too, is a miserable country, but the loss of Scotland would make it a little lighter.

The independent and enterprising spirit once associated with Scotsmen had nothing to do with politics; unless it had something to do with freedom from politics in the Scottish national order, since decision-making migrated from Edinburgh to Westminster, more than three centuries ago. Scotsmen were left with better things to think about, than how to appropriate each other’s incomes. In general I would recommend government by foreigners, who will almost invariably interfere less in local affairs, customs and traditions. Foreigners, especially those with imperial experience, can provide a more chaste and disinterested approach to the problems of governance that are unavoidable; and will be less apt to champion the envies of one group or class against another. The ideal, to my mind, is an hereditary monarchy far, far away — as indifferent as possible to the fate of “the people,” and answerable only to God. But even government by a distant republic is preferable to the settled mendacities of home rule, and the nauseating poison of nationalism.

From a view to strict and immediate self-interest, the Scots should see where independence will take them. Note the flight of capital out of their country as the polls have shifted to “Yes.” The idea that continental European taxpayers will be eager to pick up the tab for another Greece, is not a sound one. A cannier Scottish electorate would be careful to leave the English on the hook. They would not dream of depriving the Scottish National Party of rivals. They would not play with the idea of outwardly defaulting on debts, when they live on the goodwill of creditors.

But therein lies, to my mind, the strength of the argument for independence. The smaller the country, and less it can rely on bail-outs, the better for the population at large. As with the Slovaks, upon their “velvet divorce” from Czechia, they are left with no choice, after generations of whining, but to get their act together. The prospect of starvation is a fine goad, and the ability to recall what is required to avoid it seems innate to the human condition. There is, as ever, a new generation arising, with the frustrated energy associated with youth, and every reason to find the habits and worldview of their parents contemptible. Even in Greece, I gather from reports, the young are researching topics such as how to grow food, start businesses, and so forth. Many have proved surprisingly amenable to the notion of working for a living.

The constitutional argument against Scottish independence — which must necessarily involve the breach of state tradition and continuity after so many centuries — has been shown by the politicians of “No” to be much weaker than they supposed. In Britain, as in Canada when the threat of Quebec secession has become palpable, they scurry to vandalize the same constitution, by way of buying the voters off. The truth, on that side of the sea, is that Scottish “devolution” in 1999 wrecked what remained of a national constitution which had already been toyed with from many other angles. “Hope and change” are the norm today of politics throughout the Western world, and even where the letter of a constitutional order is retained, the principles are systematically betrayed for short-term party purposes — in the name of “democracy,” “freedom,” “equality,” and other cant terms, designed to baffle the innocent. The Dictatorship of Relativism demands no less, than constant change and the vacation of substance. The very structure of our laws and social order has come to depend on the kind of “consumer confidence” that underpins our essentially worthless paper currencies. Sooner or later there is a crisis, and the confidence evaporates. Hyperinflation follows.

So that again, it makes sense to leave people to their own resources in the smallest practicable territorial units. For the larger the unit, the easier to mesmerize public observation of cause and effect; the easier to confuse the perception of local realities, and give the appearance of solving problems by transferring them to those not responsible for their creation.

Opponents of Scottish independence are naturally a closed camp among the functionaries at Westminster. The bureaucratic mind cannot bear to contemplate the possibility of bureaucratic contraction. It is like thinking of death, for the modern, fully secularized mind. There is no upside to it, until the pain becomes excruciating. If the entire political class are convinced that Scottish independence will be a disaster, then I think we can be reasonably certain it will prove a boon — for England now, in a small way, but for Scotland in a larger, over time.


I am perhaps not the only person who fills with dread whenever “the spirit of Vatican II” is invoked. This is so whether the tone is approving, or sarcastic. In either case, one is presented with a wrong. For a person, even a pope, not to see the catastrophe that has befallen our Church in the time since the 1960s, is discouraging. One wonders if he is capable of judgement, or candour. But to indulge bitterness is to succumb to the same acids: to play the very part assigned to “traditionalists” by the “reformers,” and advance their project of dividing the Church into factions.

Veni, Sancte Spiritus — “Come, O Holy Spirit” — is the Catholic position, parodied in this case. The devil’s game is to set the one “spirit” against the other, in a trick of speech. It is to temporalize and politicize what is above politics. For five hundred years this game has been played, this trap has been set to “inspire” schism after schism.

Several times in the last few days I have begun drafting, then torn up what this short note replaces. It began with Cardinal Dolan’s cave to “gay” activists, demanding a place in New York City’s St Patrick’s Day parade. I was disturbed less by his decision than by the dishonesty with which he justified it, saying his predecessors had never interfered in the arrangements of the parade organizers, who are not formally answerable to the hierarchy. But he has the power to disown the parade; a power his predecessors used quite courageously — to keep out, for instance, the IRA.

The real pressure came from big businesses, which threatened to cancel their sponsorships. Money talks, and favours the politically correct. The alternative, for Cardinal Dolan, was to find the strength of character and conviction that Phil Robertson showed, when Duck Dynasty came under similar pressure.

The issue was anyway not an important one, in the larger scheme of things. Its whole significance was perhaps limited to the public spectacle of a bishop yet again bowing before strange gods. The St Patrick’s parade itself means nothing. It had become a mass market event, with little, and now nothing to do with the Catholic faith. It began as a religious procession, but had already been transformed into a fatuous display of fake Irish identity, by archepiscopal neglect. In current circumstances the celebration of the genuine St Patrick should happen in the Mass, behind closed doors, shutting out the noise of the mob passing along the street. It should be solemn.

One cave leads to another, and Cardinal Dolan’s was hardly the first. Nor will it be the last. The forces arrayed against the Church are advancing quickly. The “spirit of reform” is encouraged by every evidence that the Church will abandon her ground; that her hierarchy will cut and run from the fight, leaving her flocks to the wolves; that they will give up tomorrow what they preach today, if the reformers can muster sufficient material pressure.

Let the faithful recall that Christ did not cave: “Not one jot or one tittle.”


A more serious threat is on the immediate horizon. The Vatican’s synod on the family will come to some result, perhaps next month, and there are many indications that it will conclude with the pope’s blessing for alterations in Church doctrine on marriage. Yet even if he instead surprises everyone by upholding the received Catholic teaching — as Paul VI did in the writing of Humanae Vitae, forty-six years ago — there will be convulsion.

The “progressive” factions within the Church smell blood. There will be hell to pay if they are denied it. The “regressive” factions — which is to say, those who do not believe that the religion of Jesus Christ is outdated — will be likewise in tumult should Rome deviate from Catholic teaching. We are perhaps on the cusp of the biggest single disaster to befall the Church since the various innovations after Vatican II began emptying the pews.

Besides prayer, I do not see what faithful Catholics can do, but endure, keeping our attention focused on the Cross.

And mordantly remember Hilaire Belloc: “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”

Little history is taught today, and were we better informed we would better appreciate the many catastrophes the Church has survived, over the centuries. In time, she recovers. Often it requires more time than can be appreciated in the parenthesis of one human life. In the fullness of time, Christ rights what men have turned over. That will again happen.

Before Vatican II, it is my impression that most of the enemies of the Church were outside her, and in a sense they helped to keep her faithful unified. Since Vatican II, it is my impression that her worst enemies are inside the Church. But that has happened before.

The air show

Returning to the city, after a brief spell in what the city calls “cottage country,” one is of course impressed by the noise. It is often deafening, and never more so along the Lakeshore of the Greater Parkdale Area than during our annual air show. From my eyrie, or ivory tower — up here in the High Doganate — I am treated to five days of it. The last three are performances, for the crowds at the “CNE” (the Canadian National Exhibition), and are best viewed free, from the roof of my building. But before that we have the rehearsals, mounted as if for my private and exclusive entertainment, to the west of the CNE grounds, over Humber Bay. From a chair on my balconata I can see the whole, tediously repeated display. Or even if I am not watching, there is the roar of jet engines, and every few minutes one could swear that an airliner was about to crash into the building. How exciting.

My father was an old Spitfire flyboy; I was not raised without an appreciation for aeroplanes. Though let me add, that after the war, papa’s interest turned to gliders, bi-planes, and gyrocopters. The point was not so much to watch the things in action, rather to get oneself up into the sky. He was also fascinated by aerial photography; and by the slower-motion acrobatics.

Come 1946, he and his brother (now also deceased) got their hands on an old Tiger Moth. Papa told his mother to look out for it, and she was standing by the river outside her house in Port Credit when he came winging by, barely above the treetops, probably in defiance of every municipal by-law. He waved with the wing-flaps, then shot up the river, intending to fly dramatically under the railway bridge. On approaching it he found it was hanging chains, however. Chains are death on a Tiger Moth, and on spotting them, he was compelled to do a steep and sudden climb. I think of grandma, watching the whole performance; of women, generally, trying to make sense of that boyish quality, in boys and in men.

Now, aeroplanes make a lot of noise, and are really quite awkward. The most they can do is a few rolls and spirals, and that only at considerable risk. Most at the air show merely fly fast, an empty accomplishment when one considers the speed at which interstellar objects whiz about, in perfect silence.

There is another air show to be seen off my balconata each year, reaching its crescendo around this time. The performers are my Parkdale swallows, preparing for migration. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of them provide enchanting acrobatic displays each evening. Their show begins as the sun goes down, creating, I should think, the ideal condition for them to see the late summer insects in the air. They are bulking up for the flight south: it is in fact a feeding frenzy.

These are fearless creatures. They can fly, for their size, as fast as any aeroplane, casually execute 9G turns, and vanish at speed through cracks and openings no cat could pass through. What have they to fear? From a distance they would seem to be bats. Too, from close up, as one or more of them unexpectedly whip by, a few feet beyond the balcony rail. Their chirping to each other, their fluty pew-pew in flight, conveys I know not what instructions; it is a miracle that none ever collide.

It is a miracle to amaze even my purple finches, which have appropriated this side of my building from the sparrows, have learnt to trust me as a fast food supplier, and join with me to take in the spectacle. There is a young male who longs to be a purple martin instead — the variety of swallows on view. (We’ve had barnswallows, and cliffswallows, too, but nothing like the theatre of the purple martins.) In his looping, finch-like way, “Robert” as I call him tries to execute a roll, and plummets several storeys before recovering. I feel for him. I, too, should like to be a purple martin, instead of a purple prosewriter.

I am in confusion, currently, about the schedule. The barnswallows left promptly each September 5th, for Parkdale-on-the-Amazon, returning to breed again the next May. The martins, too, will soon disappear, but I’m not yet sure of the date. I suspect they aren’t, either. I’ve only seen them in the last three years. I haven’t seen their Bradshaw posted. I suspect they are currently adjusting their timetable to take in our spring insect peaks.

The noise hits you hard, upon returning to the city. But also, one returns enlivened to the works of nature, even near the centre of the sprawling metropolis. The city is largely indifferent to its works, but there is no law that commands indifference, and I know of several ornithological types who’ve gone to fine trouble to help e.g. these swallows return to their old grounds around Grenadier Pond in High Park, nearby. God bless these people.

Properly conceived, the city should become a giant aviary. Just as we garden, we should encourage a broad variety of birdlife to make passages here, by provision for them in food and housing. The city could be a paradise if we wished.

Well, that is my opinion, and I am sticking to it.

Labour Day

We speak of a woman “in labour,” at the approach of childbirth: the word is associated with creation, and travail. From its etymological origins, and through its history ancient and mediaeval, it was associated with farming, with ploughing, with the work of oxen; with creation (especially of food, which is important), and travail. “Work” in turn is “what one does,” or by transference what one makes, by the sweat of one’s brow.

I thought of women first, because except in the most perverse arrangements, they are not actually paid to have babies. The rest of their work, in “co-creation” (in partnership and obedience, with men and with God) was seldom paid in cash. Yet that work was absolutely necessary to our survival. Beyond this, the best works of men and women alike seldom pay very well. They are labours of love, done as ends in themselves, beyond worldly calculation. Curiously, almost everything that makes the world better is done without strict accounting; and almost everything that makes it worse contributes measurably to the Gross Domestic Product.

Consider: many governments throughout the West, including “conservative” ones, now tally the proceeds of prostitution and drug-dealing in the national accounts, or are planning to do so. (And if it moves, tax it.) This is where we are, or where we have got to, “by the numbers”: labour, with indifference to what that labour creates or entails.

The idea of a class of labourers, as distinct from a class of exploiters, is a modern abstraction. It is the Marxist poison still flowing in our veins. May Day in Europe and Labour Day in America do not celebrate work, as a spiritual good when properly directed, but the organization of workers into a political force. We have the unions which replaced the ancient guilds, in which the member is only incidentally a labourer, and need have achieved no craft skill at all. His real identity is that of an anonymous and dependent cypher, serving the interests of men with power, who serve his interest by getting him more paper money, through “collective bargaining”: a legalized process of threats and extortion. The modern worker is a faceless man, or interchangeably a faceless woman, employed in office or factory, including our factory farms. He is part of the machinery. He must be “efficient” in machine terms, or like any other defective part he will be replaced.

It is not the labourer, but the employer, who is freed today from personal responsibility. The labourer may have made all his friendships at work, may have served the company all his adult life, may live in a community the company dominates, and have formed in that his whole way of life. But a day comes when it is cheaper to transfer what he does to some prison camp in China, and there will be no ceremony when the man is disposed of.  He, and only he, had the obligation to loyalty recognized in all the old feudal arrangements. His liege lord was a joint stock company: not even a man. His boss’s loyalty was to the shareholders. The loyalty of the shareholders was to no one. If the man he thought was his boss should find him, in retirement, lying in the street, he will take out his cellphone and dial 9-1-1, and the state will take care of it.

Adam Smith wrote about this, incidentally: about the evil of joint stock companies, where all responsibility is diffused. I once endured scorn, at a gathering of Adam Smith enthusiasts, for insisting on this point.

But we are supposed to celebrate this: in particular the reduction of that element of “travail” in working life — as joy in the work itself is extinguished, by the technology that makes possible economies of scale. For an economic reality lies behind the political one. There will always be supply and demand, within any system regardless of constitution, whether nominally “public” or “private.” The truth is that the modern labourer holds his job so long as he is cheaper than the machine that can replace him; the skilled worker only until an unskilled worker, or better a robot, can take his place. The exercise is scored statistically, in dollars; it is competition for price, and almost alone for price. Yet it depends upon intangibles.

That is where advertising comes in. Modern production requires it, for most of it is unnecessary, and a demand for worthless goods must be created. The consumer must be persuaded that he needs what he does not need, and thus to buy the thing that will plug the hole in his imagination. The first principle of advertising is to associate one’s product with something that is better — something, perhaps, that would be worth saving for. “But this is just like it and you can have it now.” So far as we are surrounded by advertising, we are surrounded by lies.

The advertising is both “public” and “private,” for goods and services of many kinds. Notice all the billboards and posters of people blankly smiling.

While walking about the city, recently, I conceived a creative reactionary act. It was to arm myself with a spray can, and alter all these ads. Wherever I found yet another depiction of persons vacantly smiling, I would add the caption, “Grinning idiots.” But on thinking it through, I rejected the idea. Really, for dramatic effect, I would need a large team of vandals, to do it all in a single night. And I couldn’t afford to pay them. Too, unless done to the highest calligraphic standards, it might appear leftish and transgressive.

My views have changed over the years. As a young man, I was with the capitalists against the socialists. I associated “freedom,” a cant word unless honestly qualified, with “free markets” and that other cant word, “democracy.” In a sense I have come full circle, for as an even younger man — an adolescent — I had questioned this Punch and Judy show. I was for a time under the spell of Ruskin’s Unto This Last. By the peculiarities of parentage and upbringing I was susceptible to that. Ruskin allowed that there will always be competition; he did not dispute the operation of supply and demand, as a law of nature. He argued, however, that if the competition were only for price, the whole world would fill with the shoddy and disposable. Let the price instead be fixed, in the mediaeval manner, and let the competition be instead for quality. Let those who can’t afford, do without, and stop dressing themselves in a sad tawdry parody of what the rich wear. Let us go to war with envy.

Gentle reader is invited to look around. This is just what has happened. The world is now comprehensively cluttered with the shoddy and disposable. Beneath an idealism that is unambiguously materialist, we have very low material standards. Every corner that can be cut, is cut, “progressively.” Craftsmanship, so far as it remains, remains a luxury for the rich, specifically the rich in spirit — for the rich in money are increasingly crass. Most, at all income levels, live amid a welter of goods whose cash value depreciated almost to zero, from the moment they were purchased. They are buried in worthless, unnecessary junk — nested within it; addicted to the acquisition of more and more. They have not the discipline to stop “shopping,” even when they are deeply in debt; and yet they are allowed to vote in elections.

There is, to my mind, a liturgical order, also written into nature. Habits are formed from environment, and custom accommodates to what is accepted; or not accepted. Fine buildings and splendid works lift the spirit, call us to more vivid attention. Silence improves the ears. Music, and harmony in the dance of life, lift us up; cacophony depresses. Examples are set by good behaviour. As also, unfortunately, by bad: and we are ever rising, or falling — individually, and in the aggregate.

Conversely, the squalor in our environment contributes to the squalor in our souls; the sense that nothing really matters. We fall into the spiral of Gresham’s Law, by which bad money drives out good, the inferior drives out the superior by its cheapness. Indeed, the systematic debasement of our coinage had consequences far beyond the price of gold and silver, for what was done by our governments in the shadow of the First World War enabled credit-sharking on a planetary scale, with every Keynesian illusion that followed.

By increments, the culture of inflation has consumed us, for it operates even in the spheres of intellect, morality, and spirit, replacing the gold of deeds with promissory notes; inward stability with outward pretence.


A week ago I was travelling by bus through Peterborough, Ont. My seat-mate was some kind of environmentalist, raised in that town; born around 1990. She had noticed some phenomena of urban sprawl, even around little Peterborough; the waste of so much land. This was in accord with my own observations.

I invited her to imagine what the town would look like if all the sprawl were taken away, and replaced with farmland and woodland; if the apartment towers were taken down, and the malls and parking lots eliminated; if all the franchise operations along the main streets were replaced by family businesses and — so on. She seemed rather dazzled by my utopian “vision.”

Then I explained that this was not a vision. I was simply remembering Peterborough the way it was forty-five years ago. It was probably even more attractive forty-five years before that; before the cars took over, and began inflating space.

In the comparison we see the result of all our labour. We are making the world uglier and uglier, and ourselves uglier within it. By which I mean not merely unpleasant to look at, but ever more boring, wearying, without interest. One may drive great distances on the highway, hurtling at speed, and see nothing but more of the same stream of cars, feel nothing but frustration that we cannot go faster. For we are most of us in a hurry, against a tight deadline, to get from nowhere to nowhere, there being no there there, anywhere.

To my mind, there is a relation between this, and the loss of religion in the masses — just as and where they are transformed into the masses. I have seen, driven past, vast new subdivisions in which there is not one church spire; nor any other focus from which the eye may begin to see. (Sometimes, however, I spot a new mosque; or perhaps a new mall with a Cineplex.) We create an environment from which God is excluded, and increasingly this environment resembles Hell.


It is for this reason I support the cause of Idleness. I propose the establishment of idleness in oneself, and also collectively in a counter-culture — idly aloof from the culture that prevails, contemptuous of its economic values, and perfectly quixotic by intention.

As a principle of organization, voluntary and not legislated, I suggest embracing the received, traditional outlook and practices of the Catholic Church — which I take to be Christianity, par excellence. That is, after all, what everything good in our civilization was built upon, and we may at any time re-graft from her living roots.

I think we should create little islands of this culture, and gradually join them together. They should be visibly other-worldly: stressing the true, the good, the beautiful in all things; rejecting the false, the bad, the ugly. We should create little islands of rich particularity, invested with significance in every object and gesture; little neighbourhoods or parishes in which every human being counts, and has a role to play, and is not a number; and not one man is equal to any other. To which end, we must refuse, constantly, the easy way out, the formula, the production line, the cheap copy. For the sleepwalking tedium of the modern world must be met with a joyous defiance, bristling with poetry, music, and art.

An entire world could be reconstructed around the Mass, celebrated as it demands to be celebrated, with reverence, with attention, fixed beyond ourselves and instead upon Our Lord — upon verities transcending space and time. By increments, we then communicate that reverence through our works and days: refusing to honour what the world honours, and honouring instead what we, in growing sincerity, believe will be pleasing in the sight of God.

Not to accommodate the world, but to make the world accommodate us. And not because we are better armed, but because in the end Faith, Hope, and Charity are more attractive than fear, greed, faithlessness, and despair. This was the strategy of the first centuries. It involved martyrdom, but it did win through. For when God is with us, who can stand against us?

In labour, I think we should seek to rediscover the use of our eyes and hands, of our ears and voices: to be unhurried, to do things well. Not quickly, nor more efficiently; rather carefully and thoroughly and to the highest standard of which we are capable. Tirelessly and patiently we might set about the work of replacing what is fake with what is genuine; what is disposable with what is solid; what is loud with what is quiet; what is low and sleazy with what is elevated and noble. And not for show and for special occasions, but for use in everyday life, with less and less selfconsciousness.

I envision this as an evangelical operation: each task a movement away from the squalor, and towards the Gloria. It was the instinctive Christian conception that the world made by man should be a work of art, each man and woman contributing to it according to his talents, in all their diversity: for God made no two of us the same.

From a world of waste, where few of these talents are put to any use, we should not angrily rebel. That would be leftish. Rather we should be aloof. We should keep an ironical distance from its lazy habits, its lame sentiments, its postures and poses, slackness and slogans; which is to say, quietly adjust, adapt: Christianize and re-Christianize. For almost every smug post-Christian stance I encounter is a Christian idea, that has been satanically twisted, like a street sign turned 90 degrees; and we have only to complete the “revolution,” until it is turned back the right way.

Note my re-appropriation of that word, revolution, which came to mean “a violent uprising” only after the Reformation; prior to which it was a celestial circuit, a going around, and when used figuratively of human affairs, a turning over and back, a Restoration. Note, too, the task which Pope Benedict so vividly foresaw: for there are times when we have lost everything, and we must start building anew, seizing the opportunity to build better.

Such tasks require us to pause, to think things through, to be often outwardly, and inwardly, idle. The artist must stand back, and consider what he is doing. This idleness is necessary to industry, to the design and construction and reconstruction of everything in the echo and reflection of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

For where else could it begin, except in stillness, in silence, in idleness — in prayer.