Essays in Idleness


Vi Vil Vinne

Black Friday came early this year, to Ferguson, Missouri, with a major looting event that made the annual Walmart convulsion look almost tasteful. Yet while I do applaud people who avoid smashing glass, and stop to pay for their purchases, there is a generic similarity, such that the difference between looters  and bargain shoppers may not be outwardly apparent. In my own limited experience, one must wait patiently for the arson to begin, to distinguish one event from the other. I notice stores advertising discounts of 70 percent; what’s an extra 30? Patrons may become confused by nuance in such commercial expressions as, “Absolutely free!”

But shopping for bargains — something I’ve been known to do myself in e.g. secondhand bookstores — cannot be done with any likelihood of success, in an atmosphere of desperation. The person who is not psychologically prepared to decline any offer, is in a poor negotiating position. Unless he is willing to forego any good or service until the price is right, he is open to manipulation.

And “price” is a more subtle issue than is suggested in the sales flyers. This is so even in the restricted dimension of dollars and cents. Why, the ten-dollar book I obtained the other day — a bargain to me, for I would have paid twenty for this Compendium of the History of the Cistercian Order — was a trick of false accounting I played on myself. After adding the trolley fare, going out, and coffee stop with pastry in the course of walking home, I see that I had already spent sixteen. Moreover, I paid five for another book I wasn’t sure I wanted; and now that I examine it more closely I see that I have a disposal problem. Which leaves me a dollar over what I was willing to pay, before (remember, I am genetically Scottish) evaluating the time I invested.

The matter is of course more complicated than that. I enjoyed both the walk and the pastry. The latter was improved by the opportunity to peruse this anonymous work by a Trappist in Kentucky (published 1944). There were several moments during the walk in which extraordinarily beautiful effects of lighting were observed from winter-angle sun in back alleys. A full accounting could be done only by God, and I have no idea what the economists think they are up to in their pathologically reductive calculations.

To my mind, entering any shopping mall or big-box store would be a substantial cost in itself, and if I had to elbow a thousand other customers to get at some glitzily-packaged item that could only disturb the aesthetic peace of my domicile — well, there are holes not worth digging. I see “poor people” struggling home with these huge packages, and it is hard not to pity their Sisyphean efforts. Or to feel heartbroken for their squalling little ones: being trained by parental example to believe that, say, a big-screen TV could be worth owning, regardless of the mark-down.


The old year is ending. With Saint Andrew we begin the new liturgical year, tomorrow, in the season of Advent. It is a season of joyful abstinence, fast, self-denial, gratuitous acts of charity, bejewelled by several glorious feasts, all in anticipation of the Nativity of Our Lord.

That is one way to live, and the other was heralded by Black Friday. Indeed: I spotted an editorial congratulating businesses for reducing the rush, by starting their sales on the very day of American Thanksgiving. To the depraved, post-Christian mind, I suppose the capitalists could display their public spirit by starting their Boxing Day sales on Christmas morning.

This is our world, and the challenge to all Christians is to be in yet not of it. With each passing year we should resolve to make fewer concessions to the depravity. This cannot be done without the fortitude of the Sacraments; but meanwhile, help is on the way.


While outwardly the Church appears to be collapsing, making more and more concessions to the progressive, materialist, populist, enslaved, “Black Friday” way of life, God is repairing her. My piece at Catholic Thing, Friday (here) was succeeded by a better piece today (here) on the unaccountable revival of Catholic vocations and worship in Scandinavia and northern Europe. Lately, I am getting such news from all over, and also witnessing it in my own tiny corner of “defunct” Christendom. It is a phenomenon of the last decade or so: an unexpected development of this XXIst century.

The call to priesthood, and more broadly to obedience and holy living, is being heard especially by many of the young. By no coincidence, this is closely associated with the revival of the Old Mass. To that, in its Latin, and its otherworldly beauty, the young are attracted, even as the old and weathered, in their constantly diminishing numbers, cling nostalgically to the Novus Ordo. The Church of twenty centuries is gradually recovering from the despoliation of the nineteen-sixties.  Christ is rebuilding His Church, even as liberal bishops make their last geriatric stands on behalf of the “Spirit of Vatican II.” Much remains to be endured, but the light is returning: the candle of reverence. Christ has not abandoned His Church.

The phenomenon is recent, but I am convinced it will not be snuffed out. One man of stalwart faith can easily prevail over a hundred who are chestless. As the alternative of serious Christian commitment becomes more visible, others will join. The persecutions that will inevitably come, from that world of ideological “progress,” will themselves help to fill our ranks. Our task becomes simpler when, as now, the Prince of This World reveals his nakedness.

(I think of those Norwegians who, in the darkest days of the Hitler occupation, painted a message on the road for our allied flyboys to read: “Vi Vil Vinne!”)

It is the eve of a New Year: to each of my readers faith, hope, and love. Fight the good fight, and for all the moral stench and darkness of our “secular” surroundings, do not doubt the light will prevail.

On managing

Professional, David?”

This was my boss speaking, thirtysomething years ago, when I was deeply implicated in “professional journalism,” editing an Asian business magazine, and allied tedious publications.

I had used the word carelessly, in the conventional way, to suggest that some of the habits and practices of the company were not fully “professional,” and might be amended to make them more so. But what I actually meant was things could be done to deliver “more quality,” as an end in itself, quite apart from any calculation of market demand, now that we’d aced the competition. I granted that my proposal was eccentric. I mentioned “ethics” at some point, thus digging my grave a little deeper.

Professional, David? … You can’t even spell the word.”

This was unfair. I had made a special study of the spelling of “professional,” carefully noting the double-S, which, for a mnemonic device, I associated with the Schutzstaffel, and imagined in Armanen sig runes.

We fell into a debate on the meaning of the word “professional,” which was promptly decided by rank. “Professional” turned out to mean an operation that proceeds smoothly; that is impersonal; that is free of temporal distractions and unnecessary costs; and in which everyone does what he’s told without thinking. (This last is called “teamwork.”) It is product-oriented, and the important thing is that the product should preserve market share, while remaining profitable. Let the philosophers decide whether it were any good. The product should rather be, in itself, smooth and mechanically predictable: anything warmly human in the packaging to be carefully faked by the experts in a professional advertising agency. Costs and benefits should be enumerable, and transparent to management at every stage. “Quality,” by contrast, “is purely subjective” — a question of fashion, for those specialists in hype.

“This is a business, not an art form,” I was told. (To be fair, this boss would himself have preferred to be an artist; but the art form would have been acting, and so he played his rôle.)

Now, ethics do come into this. A company that is flourishing will have clear “policies.” A lot of money could be lost if the company were caught cheating, on taxes or whatever; and secrets, as we know, can only be kept between two people if one of them is dead. Therefore, various “options” that might further streamline a profitable operation must be rejected on sight, as adding unconscionably to risk. But ethics cannot extend to any background worldview, that is agnostic on the fundamental human virtues, and thus essentially exploitative and sleazy.

As I have long observed, ethics are for people who have no morals.

I think “professionalism” came in, to the marketplace, about when craft standards were going out. It was discovered that a mass market had come into being, as a consequence of the technological innovations of some Industrial Revolution. Products were no longer made for specific buyers, but for demographic groups to purchase “off the shelf.” Souls could now be counted in the Gogolian manner, as “consumers” in terms of heads, eye-balls, little feet, &c. Broad-franchise representative democracy was a parallel development, and finally, the principles of marketing could be applied across the board. Far from consideration as an immortal soul, the individual could now be denominated as a capricious cypher: a one or else a zero at the “cashpoint.”

One thing I learnt from the marketing gurus: there must never be humour at the cashpoint. A financial transaction is a deadly serious thing. Jocular and amusing advertisements are permissible, but the cashpoint is no joke. It is the holy of holies for the capitalist, the place where his soul is weighed, and his worth determined. I was once told, by one of the moneybags, that I should lighten up about clowns in the sanctuary, during the Catholic Mass. But solemn he became when I suggested clowns at his cashpoints.

Words do change in meaning and flavour over the years. Like every other concept in our Western, breaking-news environment, “professional” descends from the experience of the Catholic Church. The original “professors” were of religion, and if I am not mistaken (and how could that be?) the word “professional” itself was coined, in English, at the tail end of the Middle Ages, to mean a person who “professed.” That would not have been a business man.

Mind: the idea of doing things well, does not come into this discussion at all. Saint Cecilia was, I should think, a capable as well as inspired musician. Again, craft standards preceded the “professional” ones, and what once came from the choirs of our Church was in no way inferior to the congregational karaoke we usually hear, today.

Nor, strictly speaking, would this XVth or XVIth-century “professional” have been an “employee.” The nature of his obedience was different in kind: to God in Christ Jesus. For that matter, the “managerial revolution” — which has brought us everything from Twinkies to Bergen-Belsen — was still some centuries off.

The survival of ancient, monastic ideals, in the modern, cubicled office environment, should be easy enough to discern, once we realize that the ideals have been twisted approximately 180 degrees, so that what was down is now up, and what was up is now down.

Opposing the “professional,” in still-current usage, is the “amateur.” We all know the etymology, from those who do something for the love of it. But this has come to mean, people who do things in an “unprofessional” way, which is taken as untrained, unqualified, inexperienced, and klutzy. Whereas, under the old regime (Catholic and mediaeval), Love was acknowledged as the great Teacher, and those who acted from love would (immortally) succeed.

By now, gentle reader should realize how backward I am. While I have no hope whatever in our capacity to wormhole into the past, I am given to invidious comparisons.

All this by way of expressing my lament, upon discovering a notice in the lobby of my apartment building, that the magnificent and beloved “Scottish harridan” who was the superintendent of this place (she thrilled to be called that behind her back) — the Cardinal Burke of Maynard Avenue; the lady who from sheer uncompromising will, inviolable common sense, strident intolerance for evil, and blank indifference to all professional creeds, raised this to a paradisal island of peaceable humanity in the midst of Inner Parkdale — has been “retired.” And that her singular authority has now been transferred to a “professional management team.”

Where is the High Doganate to move, I wonder?

Wrath revisited

One should not write at all when one is very, very angry. Several past Idleposts have been deleted on that ground. Much better, I admit, to delete before posting. But best not to write them at all. I count it as a serious character flaw, on my part, that in such situations I seem unable to take to drink, and indulge immoderate writing, instead. Yet even drink can provide no reliable cure: for I have known several angry old men who were not improved by alcoholism. Supplicatory prayer would then be the last resort.

It is worse if one pretends that one is not angry, for the purpose of making one’s anger count. Indeed, one of my most reliable sources of anger is people I catch doing that: who strike the Olympian pose when their motive is quite obviously the settlement of a personal score. To the crime of unconscionable wrath is added the vanity of being above it. Lucky am I, that as one of nature’s hotheads, I am almost incapable of pulling that off.

For the combination of anger and self-esteem is lethal.

This is a general observation: that while the Seven Deadly Sins may be formidable, each of them in its own right, their combination can provide real throw-weight. Add pride to any of the six others, and one has constructed a ballistic missile, aimed infallibly at one’s own soul.

There is such a thing as righteous indignation. There are occasions when it needs to be used. But it is not a weapon for amateurs.


Poppy sales have been recovering — I refer only to the artificial kind — for so violent has been the history of the last century, that we can count on fresh reminders to wear them. Today, once again, at eleven o’clock, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month — before our War Memorial in Ottawa, where a Canadian soldier was recently slain in the name of Allah — we will again observe a moment of silence. And once again the first verses of a rondeau will be read, which ends: “Take up our quarrel with the foe, / To you with dying hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high. / If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders Fields.”

I like to supply that last stanza, because by omitting it our politically-correct masters of ceremony break faith with those who died.

Outside an old high school, there was a long plaque (since removed) listing the names of students who’d gone off to Europe, 1914–18, and not come home: a few dozen boys, and a couple of nursing sisters. My grandfather showed it to me, when I was young. He said, “Those are just names, but I can put a face to every goddam one of them.”

War is not nice, and “niceness” is our current religion. I’m against both, myself — against war, and against saccharine sentimentality — if they can be avoided. Often they cannot. I have some considerable respect for pacifists who will put their beliefs on the line: who will serve in the ambulances and so forth. And, nothing but contempt for the rest. I am also against nationalism and jingoism and populism — the very ingredients of the Great War, and through the Wilsonian idiocies of Versailles, the cause of many wars, later; and all of them “total wars,” as the consequence of modern demagoguery.

Men are sinful; and while frightful technology and mass mobilization have increased the scale of the carnage, barbarism is nothing new. Armed with modern equipment, acolytes of Power from the distant past might have equalled our accomplishments. There will always be quarrels to take up with such foes.

My grandfather danced across France, and up Vimy Ridge. I keep his side satchel on my closet shelf: “H.R. Warren, #340976, 25th B’t’y, C.F.A.” This is so I may read that each time I reach for a jacket, to go outside. Inside the little satchel I have stuffed my father’s leather and canvas flyboy helmet, lettered, under a cartoon, “J.F. Warren, Ape-Shape.” He flew Spitfires, “for his late majesty King George VI,” against the German Modernists.

Both had to lie about their age, to get to the front quicker. Their recruiters winked: wars are for fighting.

The people have spoken

I see that Americans are well satisfied with their politicians: over 95 percent of incumbents re-elected. Perhaps I should be more gentle in my criticism of a system that can bring such torpor and contentment, and is not so unlike monarchy after all.

For note, that in this fast-changing world, some things do not change; that some jobs stay safe, from year to year and decade to decade.

One wonders why politicians go to the trouble of awarding themselves such extravagant pensions, when they could just leave their names on the ballot, indefinitely. Retirements cost the taxpayer money: for now, instead of the one politician, we must in effect pay for two. With term limits, who knows how many we must keep, in the style to which they have become accustomed?

Think of all those presidential libraries the poor Americans have had to build, when Jimmy Carter is still alive and kicking. The ancient pharaohs did not visit so many pyramids on their constituents.

Indeed, why should we bother with elections, once we have established that so-and-so has the most recognizable name? We could wait, and have another election after he dies. Or better, cancel that, and simply pass on the seat to his eldest child.

Fox News: “A complete rejection of Obama, his agenda and leadership.” …

Oh, please.

All the souls

I will tell you a Church  “reform” I would like to see. But now I will be using this word as a synonym for “restoration,” and not as the world is currently using it. I would like to see Latin restored as the normal as well as normative language of the Mass, for many different reasons. But for today’s purpose, I will give only one reason. It would contribute to the restoration of parishes; which in turn would contribute to the unity of the Church.

“The Eucharist is not a private business,” Joseph Ratzinger (as he then was) explained, in a memorable homily. (It was for Corpus Christi, and is reprinted in the first volume to be issued of his Collected Works, in English translation, just out from Ignatius Press, page 405.) It is not the meeting of a club, a gathering of like-minded people, or those who enjoy each other’s company. Indeed no institution in all human history comes close to the Catholic Church, in the diversity of her members. That is no accident, but the intention with which she was entrusted by her Founder from the beginning. She is there for all souls; and He meant, all souls.

In the good old days, of the first centuries, when we were being persecuted by the Romans — and in a way closer to what is now happening in the Arab than in the Western world — we established our churches wherever there were Christians, above ground when possible, underground when not. In these good old days, when the Church was digging in, principally around the Mediterranean Sea, including Anatolia, Egypt, North Africa — we settled upon a very particular and controversial practice. There was to be one (1) church in every town, or within any other given jurisdiction or “parish.” Note that number carefully, which is different from two, three, or any other number. For there were to be no “niche” churches, adapted to specific classes or ethnicities or enthusiasms or groups of any other sort.

Ratzinger: “It was characteristic of the Eucharist, then, in the Mediterranean world in which Christianity first developed, for an aristocrat who had found his way into Christianity to sit there side by side with a Corinthian dock worker, a miserable slave, who under Roman law was not even regarded as a man but was treated as a chattel. It was characteristic of the Eucharist for the philosopher to sit next to the illiterate man, the converted prostitute and the converted tax collector next to the religious ascetic who had found his way to Jesus Christ.”

This was, in our current fashion idiom, “transgressive” on the part of the Church. People resisted such seating arrangements, and as we may recall from the literature of that age, the right-thinking types considered it contra naturam and a scandal. Not as big a scandal as the theological one, however: the very idea that God could have a Son, so weak and hapless as to allow himself to be crucified in plain public view. (When the Muslims mock our Christian account of Jesus, they use exactly the arguments the old Romans used.)

One “scandal” at a time, however, and today’s (holy) “scandal” is putting the variety of people all in one Church, generally, and specifically all in one locality into one local church — and inside that, celebrating the Mass in one liturgical language, transcending all ethnicities. To the many objections, even from within, the answer from the bishops was, and should be: “You’ll live.”

Christian community was built in this way; by which I mean, the thing itself in flesh and blood, not abstract slogans and theatrical postures. Christendom spread, through the many and multiplying local churches, and on the mystical breath of common liturgy. Christians were not to be atomized. We might call this the Old Evangelization, in contrast to the latest marketing ploys. The people were bound together not by worldly affiliations, but in Christ. (St Paul and St Luke cast so much light on this.)

There is an apparent paradox here, that is not a paradox. Our post-modern “liturgists,” in that “Spirit of Vatican II,” tell us that the liturgy is all about community; and about “creativity,” “freedom,” “participation,” and other vogue words of this nature, each taken at current face value, after catastrophic intellectual inflation. They stand, to my mind, in opposition to the Word. The New Mass has been filled with talk, more talk, responses, more talk, and “audience participation,” with feelgood popular karaoke hymns. (As Ratzinger observed, the liturgy itself is the first thing to set to music. To insert sung hymns into a said Mass is to throw them at the liturgy.)

By comparison, the Old Mass was full of silences. The music — the glorious, ancient heritage of Catholic music, which the “liturgists” sabotaged by gratuitously changing the scanning of texts — was participative in a quite different way. To the words of the liturgy, embodied in the poetry and music of the Mass, the congregation listened. It spoke through them, in common prayer. It was meant to be beautiful, to raise people up, not to degrade them; the highest possible standard for God, not the lowest common denominator of the congregation. The people participated in this way; they were steeped in bottomless profundities which — said or sung — echoed through interior contemplation. Not a passing variety show, a kind of spiritual vaudeville with the latest happy-clappy tunes, but the same ever anew, unfolding in the harmony of the seasons — yesterday, today, and forever. The congregation participated not volubly, but reverently. Seldom, when spoken by the priest, was the whole Canon of the Mass pronounced aloud: it sufficed to pronounce the first few words of each section of prayer. The congregation was following, humbly and intently, repeating the rest of the prayer not in a showy, but in an interior way. It was drawn out of itself, and it participated in that drawing out, its focus upon the Cross, and thereupon what is true, immortally.

In short, the community was being formed, not in itself, but in Christ. All the souls gathered in Him.

So far as I can see, all the changes made to the liturgy, in the chaos of the 1960s and ’70s, sabotaged this action. Consult the reasoning, and one sees that it was sabotaged intentionally. (A decent, if rather fey attempt is being made to roll some of this back: to correct at least the “reforms” that were directly in conflict with instructions from the actual Vatican II.) The congregation is distracted by the sound of its own voice. Its attention is turned to the priest, facing, then mirrored back onto itself; not priest and people together in one single attention to the liturgical East. There is all this “we are the people of God” pomposity: the arrogance of the “democratic” mob, celebrating its own vulgarity. Distraction has been piled upon distraction. By contrast, to pray, with all one’s soul within the sacred chant, and polyphony — and to pray the silences, in rhythm with the whole Church — is a profound participation. (Again, read Ratzinger, and discover through his works all the real authorities on the liturgy, spread as they are through twenty centuries, and not just the conceited, bureaucratic “experts” of a decade or two.)

A community, in Christ, is formed in this way; a local community within the universal community. The liturgy itself is forming this community: in the practice and very presence of Christ. Something so deep cannot possibly be casual; nor altered by whim from week to week.

The old Protestant insistence, that services be conducted in “a language understanded by the people,” may be taken in stride. Anyone in possession of an American Catholic Missal, published before Vatican II, will note that the Latin is translated to English in parallel columns, in case anyone is wondering what is going on. And, since they would be attending every Sunday, at least, they would eventually get the hang of it. There were people allergic to Latin even before 1962, of course, but they’d live.

Now what happens if, as in any large city today, we have people whose native language isn’t English? Or who, even though they have more or less adapted to the civil lingua franca in these parts, remain sufficiently “multicultural” that they attend (when they attend at all) ethnically-themed Catholic churches? Or Masses in different languages within the same church, which similarly divide the Catholic faithful into ethnic ghettos, setting natives and immigrants apart? Gentle reader may begin to see where Latin comes in: for it was and must necessarily remain the lingua franca of the Western Church; as Greek is of the Eastern, including that part of the Eastern in communion with Rome. Hardly are these the only languages, and the Mass could be sung in many more, but wherever the Catholic Church has travelled, and it has now travelled the whole world, Latin is the language of first resort.

I’m not touching here questions of schism, except indirectly. Rather, I observe that an attribute of the One Church, is oneness. Arrangements may be slightly adjusted from province to province, diocese to diocese, even parish to parish, but in each case and at any location, visibly, one Church. (It is the more painful that the contemporary, faithful Catholic must often cross parish boundaries to attend a church where heresy is not being preached from the pulpit.)

Have conditions changed in the world today? But of course: things are rather different than in the first centuries. But the fact of variety has not changed, nor has the fact of the Church. And with regard to the important matter of human ontology and immortal life: no Catholic is a “niche” Catholic.

As ever in these idle essays, I invite gentle reader only to think of this; to think things through. The points I make are those which strike me as obvious and incontestable, even though the same reader may see them as irretrievably subtle and easily contested. But again, think it through, and in its context: the fallout from all the disintegrative liturgical innovations done in the name, not of Jesus Christ, but of the “Spirit of Vatican II.”

Galatians, towards the end of chapter three: “There is neither Hebrew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”