Essays in Idleness


Cor ad cor loquitur

It is the day of the year when I request a special Ave of gentle reader, because it is the anniversary of my own reception into Holy Church — in the chapel of the Fathers of the Toronto Oratory, here in Parkdale where I still live, purposely to be in their parish. Eleven years have now passed. No longer may people call me a “baby Catholic.” (I am thinking of one woman in particular, who called me that perhaps a dozen times, a few years ago, in the course of a five-minute harangue.) I must now be acknowledged as a growing boy.

The choice of the Feast of Saint Sylvester (also last day of the civil year, &c) was not mine. It was suddenly proposed by Father Robinson, the priest who, after several months of catechizing me in delightful, broad-ranging conversations, suddenly decided: “You’ll do.” I was the more surprised by the date he selected, when I reflected on a long personal history of New Year’s Eve events.

The Father couldn’t know about them, for I had never thought to mention: that in my wild youth, through the early 1970s, every single New Year had brought with it some unforeseeable adventure (not always edifying). It was a string: for each year found me in a new country, where I didn’t really know anyone, and was expecting to spend the evening alone. But again and again, “something came up,” and I was swept up in that something. In one case I was lucky to see dawn, New Year’s Day, for with an Australian companion-of-the-moment, I’d come close to being murdered the night before. (Should Peter d’Abbs ever read this, please drop me a line.)

Most memorably, it was on this day in anno 1969 — the 31st of December — that I had finally and irretrievably “hit the road,” leaving my childhood behind me at age sixteen. For that reason, it was already a significant date in my personal calendar. My father, and his father, also left home, to go off in the world, age sixteen; I had already resolved on my sixteenth birthday not to slip behind them. I had secretly prepared my leave-taking, from the security of a good home: forming habits to toughen myself, putting money aside, and carefully studying guides to “the roads of East Asia.” It shocks even me to think back and realize, that I knew exactly what I was doing.

And now I remember the face of my poor, weeping mother. I had travelled alone some distances before, but only “to and from.” I had played “pilot” to my mother and little sister, when we’d been travelling without my father, in the same Asia: she knew I had some sense of direction. But now I told her I was leaving for good, and would not be talked down. Papa usefully interceded for me, saying: “He’s a man now, Florrie, he makes his own decisions.” Poor mama just wept and wept; but also started an old family joke by saying, “I keep seeing you lying in a ditch somewhere, with your little feet in the air.” (She was repeating this line for laughs, even on her deathbed, forty-three years later.)

How did the priest choose such an auspicious personal anniversary? It was the sort of “Jungian synchronicity” that Catholics have understood for a long time.


Sylvester I, the Pope we commemorate on this Seventh Day of Christmas, reigned 314 to 335 AD. He was contemporary with Constantine the Great (reigned 306 to 337). Sylvester did not attend the Council of Nicaea (325), but sent his delegates and concurred in the Creed that declared the Son fully one in substance with the Father — “very God of very God” — thus distinguishing Catholic teaching from the Arian heresy. A shy and retiring man, from what I make out at this immense distance, I have thought of him sometimes as a kind of “Paul VI” in that Nicaean era — maintaining orthodoxy at least to the letter as well as he could, while surrounded by wilfully destructive powers of which he could not get the mastery. (Reader may take this, as all my other speculations, with a truckload of salt.)

We who still live in the dark shadow of Vatican II, might remind ourselves of the plight of the faithful Catholics who lived in the shadow of the Council of Nicaea. They endured much. For several generations it appeared that the Church — suddenly liberated from external persecution by Constantine — was now being overthrown from within. The Arians may not have prevailed at the Council, but they acted just as if they had, and were triumphant not only in schismatic movements, but among the Church’s own “liberal,” “broad-minded” bishops. Worse, in a sense, “moderate” factions arose, playing games with words and offering the confused new dimensions of bewilderment.

Rather as today, it was an age of the rhetorical “but” — the “but” of humbuggery. See Father Hunwicke’s blog through the last four days (starting here), to discover what I mean. A perfectly orthodox statement is made, then qualified after a “but” in a way that sounds plausible, but is actually deceitful. This is among the world’s oldest sophistical sleights-of-hand, for the “but” privileges the statement that comes after, thus undermining the statement that came before — while leaving the dishonest man who uttered the whole sentence an escape if he is challenged. To expose his trick, one has simply to reverse the statements. (Hunwicke provides an extreme example from the recent Extraordinary Family Synod in Rome, in which the “both/and” of doctrine and compassion is thus sleazily turned into an “either/or.”)

The Fourth Century is of exceptional interest, for parallels to our own situation. Once again, faithful Catholics find themselves in the quandary of having bishops to obey, whom they cannot fully trust. We have heretics in high places who play games with words, to alter Church teaching while pretending to follow it, “in the Spirit of Vatican II” — where, in fact, what they are now preaching was never proclaimed, and often explicitly condemned. We find ourselves in these circumstances often abandoned by our shepherds, or worse, led towards the wolves rather than away from them, with that shrugging attitude of, “Who am I to judge?” And our task, as faithful Catholics — both lay and ordained — is now as then, to pray, and keep Our Lord’s genuine teaching alive in our own devoted hearts.

Or as John Muggeridge often put it: “Don’t let the bastards drive you out of the Church!”

For in time, now as then, the Church will be righted, and the old Gnostic swamp gas will once again disperse as if it had never been.

Read: The Arians of the Fourth Century, by John Henry Cardinal Newman; and also I should say his very telling essay, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” Then consult his motto, from out of the Confessions of Augustine: Cor ad cor loquitur, “heart speaks to heart.”


These words, Cor ad cor loquitur, were written in the hand of the same John Muggeridge (1933–2005). He quoted them in a note to me, inscribed on the inside cover of a book he gave me at my Reception, eleven years ago today — an anthology, or synthesis, entitled, The Heart of Newman, arranged by the heroic Jesuit priest and philosopher,  Erich Przywara.

John Muggeridge — my beloved friend, example, and guide — was dying quietly of cancer. He, too, had been a Catholic convert. On the flyleaf, I find an inscription not from, but to John, written a generation before by another man (“Donald Neilson, priest”), citing the same phrase. Thus has our faith been handed down, person to person, and heart to heart, these last two thousand years — including, in prayer, cor-ad-cor with the man Jesus.

Often through the centuries we were up against the wall, at least outwardly in worse shape than today. Several times the Church herself came closer to extinction. Moments of victory (remember Constantine) turned to ashes; terrible defeats conversely to glory. The great ship of Holy Church has capsized, and been righted, many times, by the “hidden hand” of the Holy Spirit; saved when no men could possibly have saved her. And through the worst moments, some faithful have persisted, in obedience to the still small voice of a conscience correctly formed. We have been martyred, but also many times, we have been abandoned and left, uncatechized and unabsolved, to the wolves by unworthy shepherds. But we have never been abandoned by Christ, to Whom we may turn, always.

I knew what I was getting into, when I joined the Roman Church. I had watched from within the destruction of the Anglican communion, by their own liberal clergy, forgetting Christ in their eagerness to keep up with the Zeitgeist; and I was vividly aware that plenty of the same garbage would be found, littering the other bank of the Tiber. On balance, to my happy surprise, life in the Catholic Church has turned out to be easier than I expected. Which is not to say she isn’t in a very bad way; and honesty requires us to admit this openly. Yet I remain convinced, that even while the old “reformed” churches continue to the bottom, Christ will keep his promise. And the old, “unreformed,” Barque of Peter will stay afloat. For I believe that God does keep his promises.


From Newman’s mission prayer:

“I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”

Saint Sylvester and Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us.

Six geese a-laying

The gold rings we have received in chorus, and the colly birds (“colly” means black), the French hens, the turtle doves and verily: the pear-tree’d partridge. Moreover, we look forward to the swans a-swimming, the maids a-milking, the ladies dancing, the lords a-leaping, the pipers piping, and in their due course, the drummers drumming upon the Eve of the Epiphany of Our Lord. But for the moment we will be quite contented with our goose eggs. Take what you get, I always say.

In the year of grace 1979, we learn from the standard gliberal sources, Hugh Duncan McKellar, hymnologist of Petrolia, Ontario — who once offered a rather suspicious article to my Idler magazine — wrote an enchanting account of the origins of this “Twelve days of Christmas” carol. He said it was composed for the Recusants of the underground in the reign of Bad Queen Bess. Each of the gifts mentioned in the song is, with its number, an item in a secret catechizing code. God is the “true love,” the partridge is Jesus, there are two Testaments, three Theological Virtues, four Gospels, five Books of Moses, six Days of Creation, seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, eight Beatitudes, nine Fruits of the Spirit, ten Commandments, eleven faithful Apostles, and twelve, count ’em twelve, dogmas in the Apostles’ Creed.

That none of this could possibly have surprised an Anglican, was the first clue. The late McKellar (1932–2012, and God rest him for a sweet, charming man) had made the story up from whole cloth. He was happy to admit this. Unfortunately, it has since gone round the Internet a few million times, thanks to well-intentioned but rather simple-minded Catholic enthusiasts, and keeps coming back as eggs in their faces.

But wait. … Add all the gifts up, cumulatively through the twelve days, then add the True Love at the end and you have … exactly … the 365 days in a non-leaping year. I got this from the Internet, but have personally checked the arithmetic. (An old habit of mine, though nothing to do with my career in journalism. I just don’t trust people.) And I provide this as an absolutely useless, supplementary fact.

The carol does, however, continue to remind us that there are twelve (12) days of Christmas. All are to be taken as days of celebration. We did Advent already, when we were supposed to be abstinent in preparation for this big event; so that anyone who has now stopped drinking and eating to excess should be roundly condemned as a Cafeteria Catholic.

Please, people, remember your Obedience. When Holy Church says stop celebrating, you stop. When she says start celebrating, you start. And you continue until she says stop again. Surely this isn’t hard to understand.


Anyone for an omelette?

Geese lay the most delicious eggs, in my humble but irrefutable opinion. The yolks are marvellously rich. The whites may at first disturb the more inflexible hen-egg eaters, for a certain unexpected gelatinous quality, but might grow on them. They may also hesitate before the brighter colours, that suggest nuclear irradiation; but prejudices can be overcome. For a lifetime of eating only one sort of egg closes the mind and darkens the spirit.

Alas it is hard to locate the goose, in the grocery stores of the Greater Parkdale Area, let alone her eggs: I have found that one must order one’s Christmas goose in advance, from the Italians, who are not shy in charging for it. Towards spring, goose eggs may or may not appear in the St Lawrence Market. Ask patiently, and never give up.

In England, goose eggs could be found in season, but only with difficulty in pre-Internet London. In Cornwall, on the other hand, they seemed everywhere towards Easter (in 1977).

Before modernity arrived, with its economies of scale, and over-valuation of labour, a great variety of eggs were collected for the table: including fish eggs, which curiously counted as eggs not fish for Lent and Fridays. The birds were at least semi-domesticated, and were moved about as bee-keepers move their bees from one flowering to another. Methods of reaping, before the introduction of big horrible machines, left e.g. much for the “Michaelmas geese” to glean from the cornlands. Our ancestors did not countenance waste. Their vertical farming, on ropes up cliff faces by the sea, yielded huge supplies of somewhat fishy-tasting eggs from the sea fowl, and it would still be worth doing if only to induce a heart attack in any passing environmentalist. (To my view, and Shakespeare’s, it is always open season on killjoys.)

In principle, one might collect goose eggs oneself, from Lakeside, ravine, or park, but there is probably a law against that, and the birds themselves may try to enforce it. Swan eggs are also spectacular — I speak as a man of the XIIIth century — but trust me, you do not want to mess with an angry swan. Canada Geese, on the other hand, behave in so consistently an unpleasant manner, that it doesn’t make much difference whether they are brooding. They lay clutches of much less than a dozen; other geese lay a dozen plus, so when you’ve found one you’ve found lots more. City apartment dwellers might discover goose nests on the tops of their buildings. (Just saying.)

For what it’s worth, gull eggs can also make very good eating.

A goose egg may be triple the size of a hen egg, and given the usual trouble in making an omelette — keeping the surface from rubbering before the inside is done — it is wise to make one’s omelettes one goose egg at a time. It has also a shell that will defeat a butter knife. But where the connoisseur with hen’s eggs will beat the yolks and whites separately, before folding them together, the goose gourmand needn’t bother. Water is unneeded for the yolk, and its weight will spread yolk through white in an ideal way, with spatula stirring. As any eggs, they cook quickly, so do not begin until your guests are sat at table.

For the life of me, I cannot find a recipe for a goose omelette in any of the several books on mediaeval cookery I see on my shelves, but off the top of my head, chopped parsley, chives, shaved truffle, salt, ground pepper, and grated citrus rind, hammered together, will sprinkle nicely on the top, and perhaps a ricotta or soft cottage cheese melted around asparagus for the filling. Ham strands good, but fatty bacon perhaps over the top. Use plenty of butter, and finish quickly under the grill.

Over-easy, with similar dustings, will fill the whole breakfast plate, and need not be attempted without great confidence, a steady hand, and a Rabelaisian disposition.

The boiling of eggs is, incidentally, a contemptibly modern practice. The roasting of a goose egg in wood ash is, I am told, the proper backward-looking approach, and makes a sumptuous dinner course, but requires instinct or skill in timing and turning. Bear this in mind for the campfire, however, should you find negligent mother geese about.

Vertu engendred

The gruffness of Thomas Becket (saint and martyr, 1118–1170; feast 29th December) is something that might appeal to the adherents of our Halbbildung. (This is a beautiful German word that means “half-education,” and so much more.) Thomas came from a good family, with some money, and was a good lad by all accounts. (Many, many “instant biographies” were written shortly after his death, providing the modern scholar with an embarras de richesses.) But the money was lost, and after only a year of university (at Paris), Thomas had to leave. It is said his Latin was less than elegant.

We are not well-educated today, to say less than the half of it. I should perhaps speak only for myself in this matter: I did not even make it into the Sorbonne. (Though I did get to the Latin Quarter.) And though I once attended a pretty solid cathedral school (St Anthony’s in Lahore), it was probably not as good as the earlier ones Thomas Becket attended.


Now, perhaps I should explain that the late-adolescent Thomas went to the university before it was a university. (Do I use too many parentheses?) The University of Paris was formally established only later in the XIIth century than Thomas lived; but long before that, there were college-like guilds, congregated chiefly around the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and the Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève. Each was already, for practical purposes, a universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which is to say, a “community of masters and students.” As elsewhere, across Europe: for cathedrals, abbeys, and monasteries of all sorts were, in their nature, teaching institutions.

This certainly included convents, by the bye, where women were taught, often to a very high level — for in the Middle Ages we did not yet have the horror feminae, or shall we say “gynophobia,” that came with the Reformation. (The distinction between sexes is very Catholic. The depreciation of the female sex is very unCatholic.) Mary Becket, the sister of Thomas, who became Abbess at Barking, is worth mentioning in this respect. Barking Abbey, until its suppression by Henry VIII, was the greatest of England’s “universities” for women, alma mater to so many distinguished ladies of both Church and Court, including Saints and Queens. For nine hundred years it flourished, until the Tudor monster had it crushed. (But that was just an aside.)

It was the same in other towns, where the earliest Universities were founded — Padua, Naples, Salamanca, Oxford, Cambridge, and so forth. We had the thing itself before we had the thing as autonomous institution.

When, later and on his feet with ecclesiastical sponsorship, Thomas went to Bologna and Auxerre, he “graduated” not as theologian but lawyer — yet with a finer grounding in natural law, than would be available in any law school today. He had the reputation of being “not very religious” (but that would require another aside). …

Something was lost, as well as something gained, when the modern University — this entirely Catholic, mediaeval invention — came into being. One might, perhaps, write at length some day about that darker side, which appeared almost immediately in student rioting and much other disgraceful behaviour, reminding us of campus life today. By putting higher education at one remove from ecclesiastical authority, Newman’s liberal (in the best classical sense) “idea of a university” became possible. But it was also like putting a dam across the river. A certain kind of fish was excluded from breeding in the river’s upper reaches; a professorial cabal began jealously to guard and impound the waters. A new kind of authority was created, displaced from the ancestral cure of souls. An intense new flavour of academic smugness was dispersed in society.

One might even argue that the invention of the formal University was the launch of our modern “secular inhumanism”; or put another way, the launch of technocrats and pointy-heads to new positions of power and prestige, as specialist advisers to the princes of this world — soon enjoying the prerogative of the harlot (power without responsibility).

But Thomas Becket was a product of the old school — the church and monastic learning, focused on responsibility itself. His brief tastings of the learned life proved nutrient sufficient to his needs, and I speculate that his graceful strength came to his calling from that pedagogic background: his peculiar sense of the smallness in the largeness of the world; of the completeness of things, the hardness or tactility of a world intentionally created by a divine Maker. One reads this in his surviving Correspondence. He seems to have had, from his early manhood, like our later and more learned Saint Thomas More, a conception of civil society so hardily rooted in the Christian teaching that, almost without thinking, he could stand up to a king.

Becket and More each served as Lord Chancellor of England — the sovereign’s principal adviser in matters both temporal and spiritual, and thus something more than a Prime Minister today. (Becket, befriended by King Henry II for his obvious abilities, was appointed while still in his thirties; then went directly from Westminster to Canterbury in 1162.) Neither was a “mystic” in the fey understanding we have of that word today; both very practical men of affairs. And in the end, each found himself on the Church side of a bitter clash between Church and State; for which he was murdered.

In the case of Thomas of Canterbury, we should all know the story: the four knights of King Henry II coming to dispute with him in the Cathedral, first hiding their weapons outside; then retrieving them when the discussion had not gone their way. The Saint: still kneeling in prayer for them, as his brains were being splattered.


The pilgrims, gathered in the Tabard Inn at the outset of the Canterbury Tales, are en route to the Shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in the Canterbury Cathedral — which, through the two centuries to Chaucer, had become the epicentre of English religious life:

And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke …

It is gone now: Henry VIII had it smashed and swept clear, as part of his operation to destroy the old England, and replace God with a Man on the English throne — completing the work begun by his predecessor, Henry II. It was a piece of architectural surgery vastly more significant than the nail-holes Martin Luther left in the door at Wittenberg: for Luther was merely following a mediaeval custom by stating his theses in that way. The destruction of the shrine of Saint Thomas was, to men of that age, the great symbolic act announcing that the State would replace the Church, not only as the temporal, but as the supreme spiritual authority in each land. Henry Tudor had promoted himself from Defender of the Faith, to the legislator of it, and henceforth the True Church would have to go underground.

Or to put this another way, modern education had matured, and the full Reign of the Pointy-Heads was about to begin: the men who believed that they “knew better” than any previous men had known, … and about everything. Or if you will, the people who design Obamacare today.

Henry II had tried the same, before ridding himself of that “turbulent priest,” who faced him so gruffly, and stated his case in such plain language as anyone could understand. From his hunting lodge at Clarendon, Wiltshire, this Henry Plantagenet had promulgated legislation that anticipated Henry Tudor’s, making himself the supreme authority in all matters relating to the Church in England, trundling over her ancient independence and established legal rights with something like glee — in the so-called “Constitutions of Clarendon,” reverenced by the Whig historians.

Henry’s Latin was surely better than Thomas’s. He could read several other languages besides that, some English, and his court French; and then there was his famous ability to be morosely silent in a wide variety of tongues. Had Henry II prevailed, we might well have had something like the Reformation started, then and there, instead of so many centuries later. But the times were not yet propitious: the people understood that kings were not popes. So did other kings, who supported Thomas in his subsequent exile, finally compelling Henry to accept his return. But the clash between the two immediately resumed, for exile had not turned the Archbishop into a wimp.

Thomas Becket defeated Henry II, even in death. In the fullness of his mediaeval conscience, with the Will of God against him, and miracles being attributed, all over the place, to the man he’d had killed, Henry finally acknowledged his error, and had himself scourged for the crime on the Saint’s own tomb. For in the end Henry, too, was a man of his Age — of Faith, — lacking our modern swagger and smugness.


To the two Saints Thomas, and more, to Our Lady of Walsingham I look for what is greatest in the English heritage — as also broadest, for all three were justly famed across Europe. Indeed: I have just raised a wee tote to Becket, of Marsala wine — the Cathedral of Marsala in Sicily having been dedicated to our English, but also trans-European Saint, these last eight hundred and forty-ish years. (With difficulty they obtained some relics of the Saint, which later in the goodness of their hearts they returned to Canterbury, when the first post-Reformation Catholic church was allowed to open in that town.) Not even the great shrine-wrecking Henry could take all of that heritage away; and in the Anglican Patrimony, now returned to the Church, we recall much that was long missed from that old Catholic England.

On this Fifth Day of Christmas, we celebrate triumphantly this Saint of Christian truth and valour, against worldly cowardice and lies, and the foetid moral stench of secularism. In the face of Christ’s enemies, when they come to “debate” with weapons hid: Saint Thomas of Canterbury, pray for us.

Shabkar revisited

One of my old Commentariat, who is not a Catholic, nor a “joiner” by disposition (a reticence I understand), writes to maintain his sympathetic aloofness. He window-shops religions, but never buys. (This also appeals to my old Adam.) He quotes from the Life of Shabkar, a Tibetan classic I apparently mentioned in passing, a couple of years ago. Shorn of its context, and perhaps a few explanatory notes, the excerpt he selected was side-splitting.

Truth be told, like Kipling before me (we both came from Lahore), I love a Lama; and never more than when he retreats uphill into fluffsome obscurity. The higher up the mountains, the better, and Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol ascends sometimes to a point that is almost Catholic. It will take, however, more study and reading than most moderns have the leisure to perform, to follow the Yogin of Amdo to his lair. For this “laughing philosopher” of the early XIXth century is expounding a doctrine whose sublime humour is not immediately accessible to us. We laugh at all the wrong passages, and in a way rather differently than the Yogin intended. A child of the modern West might well need more than the Tibetan language, to laugh with Shabkar, and not at him. On the other hand, an intelligent Catholic monk would have much less trouble, picking his way up the slopes; for he has already climbed some surprisingly similar “spiritual mountains.”

What any reader could appreciate — I thought at the time — is the more naïve joy in simply being with this strangely kind and companionable Shabkar, however briefly; and going with him along the fields and footpaths of what was still a mediaeval Tibet — hearing echoes of our own wandering scholars, and of their laughter in the face of the dangers of the road; and feeling with them the great beauty of a world without cars or handsets, in which the highwaymen are all low-tech. Surely I have quoted before my beloved English poet, thinker, and mountaineer, Michael Roberts:

Coming out of the mountains of a summer evening,
Travelling alone;
Coming out of the mountains


I think that our Apostle and Evangelist, Saint John the Divine, can be better understood if we glimpse him that way: in his moments as free spirit along the open road, travelling afoot, on his way from one glorious adventure to another. Nothing takes this man by surprise. While the last of the Four Evangelists in the biblical order, I often suspect Saint John’s Gospel was the first to be written — the more in light of recent archaeological finds. But whether or not it was, we all know it stands apart from the Synoptics; that it is sui generis in comparison with the other three Gospels. (From its spiritual angle, each of the four is one-of-a-kind, but I am being “comparative.”) Saint John of his nature goes his own way. If there was one Christian who never really needed to be told by an angel, “Fear not!” — John was he.

Peculiarly, he was “the disciple whom Christ loved”: a statement six times repeated, but never once explained. Yet in light of the whole teaching — and let us add the three Johannine Epistles to his bibliography, along with his Apocalypse, and stand tall with all the Church Fathers against the tenured Professors of Splodge — it makes perfect sense. For the relationship of Jesus with John, uniquely among the Apostles, is without complexity. A sinner, no doubt, was John as all men, but there is nothing in him that seems to need breaking. There is hardly another Saint like him, until perhaps Saint Francis of Assisi; another who is so uncomplicated. That Book of Revelations may present many enigmatic figures to us, as all creatures of Heaven and Hell must be; but in Saint John there is no enigma. He simply goes about his way.

With a smile, John tells us six times in his Gospel, that Jesus loves him. It is the way a lover says, “I love Jesus.”

The flip side of his holy aloofness, is an extraordinary precision as an observer, both of the events unfolding around him, and of the visions that come to him. Saint John in the mountain on Patmos is, to my reading, the same Saint John of the Word, and I no longer hesitate to subscribe to the ancient tradition, that the “various Johns” are, verily, one. (The faithless among scholars cannot possibly accept this, because they would then have to accept the New Testament as true, rather than as a spindle on which to wind doctoral dissertations.)

The one Apostle who was never martyred, never needed to be. (Compare: the closing of Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”)


The same who quoted Shabkar, from his religious window-shopping — finding something in the yogin beyond his comprehension, or perhaps his patience, as “a way among ways” — had this to add on a topic closer to home:

“Catholicism is certainly one way — perhaps the take-no-prisoners way — but it seems too simple, and at the same time too elaborate somehow.”

By some amusing coincidence my reply to that had already been filed, but was just appearing on the Catholic Thing website, at midnight a few hours ago (here). It is this very paradox, of the ridiculously small and simple, at the root of the ridiculously large and complex, which persuades me that Catholic Christianity carries throughout the ring of truth. Our Lord is too much like the universe He created, not to be the Author of it. For it is, as I said over there, “full to busting with scale reversals.” And the Church, as it were, proceeds filioque, like the universe itself, “from the Son.”


Another of my correspondents, who styles himself “Constantinos the Vain and Simply Awful,” confesses that while he cannot possibly disbelieve in God, and is contemptuous of the tired, pathetic arguments presented by the “New Atheists,” he nevertheless has “issues” with God, and moreover, issues that will Need to be Settled. He is angry with God, and with His works, and for what he considers to be Darn Good Reasons. He realizes that his problem is not with the Church, but with her Founder.

I have met several in his case, and am inclined almost to congratulate them, for having a closer relationship with “the Godhead” (love this word, that is hated by the prim), than I do.

The next step is Fear. And the step after that is Love. On this Feast of John we commemorate a man who hopped, skipped, and jumped the whole course to its conclusion. Saint John pray for us, who are slow.

Feast of Stephen

The item below, draughted in a hurry, has since been revised and extended. It still doesn’t please me, but for the usual reason: that it leaves so much more to say.


I should like, if possible, to avoid being martyred. I don’t think I am unusual in this. I’ve thought it through fairly carefully, yet even if it came down to instinct alone, the avoidance of death would be “indicated.” (I love this lawyer’s term.) Martyrdom isn’t suicide, but in the popular, post-Christian imagination it is, so let’s start from there. I’ve met several people who once, or twice, attempted suicide, in the course of their funny little lives. (Apology to Wodehouse.) Needless to say, they didn’t pull it off: the fact I got to meet them attests to their powerful “animal spirits.” (John Maynard Keynes.)

For it can be downright physiological. A lady taking pills — she had laid in several bottles of them — told me that after downing a dozen or so, her stomach started to rebel. She decided that the pills could not be good for her, and so stopped taking them, calling for an ambulance instead. It was touch and go for her, however, when it came to those animal spirits, intersecting with the human: for she said her embarrassment at the public spectacle had almost overcome her fear of a painful death. She was (and remains, to my knowledge) a nice conservative middle-class lady, who doesn’t like a fuss.

In their purest form, I once encountered these animal spirits in a squirrel. This was as a boy, when I noticed one crossing something called Edith Street. He had, as squirrels sometimes do, miscalculated the trajectory of an approaching car. As ill-luck had it, he went under a front wheel, even as it swerved. This cost him the back half of his body, but the front was, barely, still alive. He was trying to crawl. I was horrified by how he must be suffering. It happened in that moment I had a bucket with water, and a garden spade. As an act of mercy, I collected him on the spade, to drown him in the bucket. He was perishing; he did not at first resist. But as he touched water, he came back to life: and I shall never forget how he splashed and struggled, in those last seconds before he went limp.

Now, a squirrel is unlike a middle-class lady, at least in this: that he does not care whether he’s making a scene. A student of squirrels over some decades, I can confidently claim that they are, as a familia, shameless.

Humans are not squirrels, though the euthanasia activists would have us treated as if we were, to be put down in our misery. Our nature exceeds the squirrel nature, dimensionally. It is true that we share some instincts with squirrels, which sometimes frustrate the doomers’ best efforts — when trying, for instance, to talk some poor geezer, occupying an expensive palliative bed, into “death with dignity.” (Trademark.) Note the exploitation of that human quality: the dislike of making a fuss, a spectacle, of being a public nuisance. Granted, the old guy’s “quality of life” has nose-dived; but something tells him to hang in. It might just be his animal spirits. Alternatively, at the back of his mind, there might be an alarm that no squirrel ever considered: that dying is bad enough, without going to Hell.

We should not forget that, even when we are surrounded by devils in human flesh, angels are singing those wonderful words, from all the way back in Deuteronomy: “Choose life.” And in the end, choose life everlasting.

When it came to the brink, quite literally in the case of one gentleman, who intended to leap off a cliff, he suddenly remembered some paperwork he’d neglected: that he owed a letter to his mama. That totally scrood up his plans: for how was he to know that at the same time, the same mama had been desperately praying for her “bi-polar” son? He had to go to the brink to be cured of that condition: which never afflicted him again.


I write this apropos Stephen, our first Christian martyr; and thus, the second in history to die, praying for his executioners. (Jesus was, I should think, the first.) It was the liturgical genius of the Church, to fix the Feast of Stephen upon the first day after Christmas. And it is feast not fast, as every day in the Christmas Octave: today blowing away the usual Friday abstinence.

We might reasonably assume he had those animal spirits, and also the human capacity for shame. He was in the full enjoyment of manhood, not old and tottering towards his end. There was nothing suicidal in his personality. He was an astute and trusted member of his Church, assigned to look out for the interests of the Greek widows. He had useful work to do in this world.

This Stephen, of whom we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was among the first deacons the Apostles appointed to help spread their load. They knew him immediately for one of their own, nay probably better than themselves, for Stephen had great natural courage as well as wisdom. Not only was he our first martyr, but our first model for the Imitation of Christ: “Full of grace and strength.” He took upon himself, unflinching, the task of disputing with … the sort of people we’ve been disputing with for the last two thousand years, in witness of Christ Jesus. And from what we can read, Stephen was very effective; which is why his enemies and ours had to frame him with lies, stitch him up with a capital charge of blasphemy, and have him stoned outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Humans have these animal spirits, and it is not only the stoned-to-death fate that we are naturally inclined to avoid. I can think of several other final scenes in which I’d prefer not to participate, much as Saints might recommend them. Under normal circumstances, these are easy to avoid. Even in abnormal circumstances, safety is usually available. The trick is to keep your head down, and your thoughts to yourself; to stay a discreet distance from the action; or should it get too close — cry with the wolves, when the wolves are crying. Most of the human race aren’t heroes; it seems eleven of the original twelve Apostles, as typical bishops, happened to be busy on the day Christ was crucified. (Judas, being dead, had the best excuse.) I don’t think that proportion has changed. It was only after He rose from the dead, and came back, as it were, to haunt them, that they were prepared to “get with the script.” But Stephen understood it from the first reading.

Agreeing to be martyred, when it is the only alternative to denying Christ, is for heroes. The rest of us will be busy that day. But sometimes, one is called, as Peter found on his way out of Rome, when Christ had to tell him, yet again, that the old cock was still crowing. And so he turned back, to his own execution, in his capacity as our first Pope. Martyrdom was among the perqs of the job, for most of our early Popes. Stephanos — which means “crown” in Greek, in the sense of the victory wreath — had taught them how to obtain that Crown, and how to wear it; and as we know, Christ gives reminders. He has also the knack for being there, when He is needed.

Full martyrdom is hard, and not to be recommended for spiritual novices, as Holy Church has taught these last twenty centuries. It is very different from suicide, or more precisely, “self-murder.” Likewise it is not to be set up for others: for that is “murder,” plain. To speak of the Crown of Martyrdom, is rightly to imply there are lesser stations. There are little martyrdoms along the way, little acts of self-abnegation to be mastered — quietly, and with no outward show, for courage can be opposite to bravado. The man or woman who likes to “play the martyr,” in everyday life, is a plague and tyrant. I’m sure we have all met one of those, and some of us have had to live with one.

Nor, of course, are Muslim psychopaths, who blow themselves up in crowds, martyrs in any possible way. Those who think Allah (“God”) would order any such thing, have certainly confused Him with Satan. They err, I think, on the side of bravado.

By their fruits ye shall know: Saint Stephen died, praying for his executioners. As the rest of us may guess, from our acquaintance with the “normal” human condition, that might be harder than accepting death. (I fear that, in Stephen’s situation, I might die uttering some vile epithets.) Stephen could talk, elegantly and convincingly, but he was more than talk. In our saying, both silly and profound, which refers surely to the Via Dolorosa, he could walk the walk.

Christ was Christ, we might say. He had “secret powers.” Heretics have often thought: perhaps He was cheating when He went to the Cross. Or, when He was sweating blood in Gethsemane. “It must be easy when you’re God.” (We’ll deal with them another day.)

To be sure, Stephen wasn’t God. He was just a Christian, taking the example of Our Lord seriously. And this, not only to death, but to what is better than death: earnestly praying for his worst enemies. Among the witnesses was the young Saul, later the Apostle Paul. In fact, he was doing coat-check at the stoning, convinced that Stephen got what was coming to him. Count Paul among the enemies for whom the condemned man prayed: Saint Stephen pray for us.

On the new orthodoxy

Eerie sounds this morning, on the balconata of the High Doganate. It was the wind spinning in branches and eaves: dry chatter beneath a softening rainstorm roar. An old train-whistle moan blew through the crack of a loose sliding window. The city for its part remains unearthly quiet, the usual crash of traffic damped below nature’s breathing. It is the sound that cars make when they are parked; of a million cars not driving to church on Christmas Day.

For those not shut in by age and illness, and even for most of them, there is no excuse for the loneliness that is hyped in the media at this time of year. The child Christ rests by His altar, and God is always near. Always, there is something to do, and there could be peace in any cell or hermitage, in prayer with and for the whole world.

Or one might wish to consider the nature of one’s loneliness: what it is, and what it is not. True loneliness is peopled by friends absent, displaced through space and time. Sometimes, in age, what was once a multitude has come down to a single soul, perhaps with his photographs of Christmas Past; or even without them, memories of love in a distant time. Dark, dark, they’ve all gone into the dark, and in a moment these memories begin to catch within his throat: that when I am gone, no one will be left to remember them, in this world where they were once so alive.

Old lady or old man in the corner of a room, languishing in a nursing home, waiting patiently on death row, for they have learnt there is no better way to wait; and more likely than not merely enduring the forced, professional, gaiety of strangers. It is the end of all their adventures. They have come to what is called, “the last place on earth.”

Those who have the decency to visit, may not realize that duties come with such chivalrous endeavours: the fair maiden must be won. Love that is not ardent is not love: the visitor is bound by love to keep his promise. He must return. He must make himself wanted, must put light in those repining eyes. I’m amused by the politicians of the nursing homes: those who arrive with a glad hand for everybody. By all means, vote for that person, and the jolly spirit that is cast around; it is a real service. But the knights have fixed their attention. For love is in the eyes, that meet the eyes: the ardency of love, that takes one out of oneself and into the heart of every friendship. That is what tells you that you are not alone; that you have something better than a text message.

People are not only lonely in the “home.” It can be done anywhere.

For nine-in-ten, if not more, the loneliness is a pose of self-absorption. One is actually not feeling lonely, for anyone in particular, but rather more generally, sorry for oneself. Why? Because of course no one loves you. How could they, given the way you have behaved? Your whole life has consisted of abandoning people, from the moment their use to you had passed; and now they have all abandoned you, in quiet retaliation. They have lives too, after all; and their own commitments to self-absorption, their own agendas of self-will.

Western Civ, or we should call it more precisely, Christian Civ, had its orthodoxy — still observed in outlying places. This was not a set of rules, however complex; not a succession of algorithms delineated in base 2. It was a way of life, with ritual and custom. It encompassed huge variety, from generation to generation, and place to place. And yet it cohered: was held together by a Spirit, in all times and all places; and a common apprehension of that Holy Spirit. It was, “One nation under God,” except, a nation above all the little nations, themselves birds of passage. It was, as every high civilization, comprehensively hierarchical: a place for everyone, and everyone in his place. Such that: whatever one’s location, from chimneysweep to king, one existed to serve something higher. And all ranks met before the King of kings, which is to say, in church. A civilization can be defined by that in which it reposes Faith; by that to which it turns, not only in adversity. (“In God we trust.”)

In the fading of this Western, Christian Civ, we have seen a new civilization arise, appropriating all its goods for its own new purposes, and building up a new orthodoxy. I have watched, all my life, this grim, solemn, methodical progression, from rites to rights.

The new civilization has its own cosmological conception (the Darwinite vision of randomness); its own moral ethos (wherein every person is a law unto himself); its own intellectual and aesthetic norms (establishing that not only beauty, but truth, and goodness, are in the eye of the beholder). It is governed by metastasizing rules and regulations — in which custom has, formally, no jurisdiction. Faith itself, and the conduct it has governed, is taken to be a purely personal matter, and all values associated with common belief may be dismissed as equally arbitrary. This leaves arbitrary “equality” as the one ideal: the value that denies all other values. Pope Benedict called this, “the dictatorship of relativism,” and those who resist its dictates may very well find themselves in court.


From thirty-five years ago, I recall a book that was on many coffee tables: The Culture of Narcissism, by Christopher Lasch. It was an essay in post-modern sociology, but in its season it clanged a big bell. Lasch wrote of the destruction of the traditional family by the “organized kindness” that had assumed its functions; of the radical movements that emerged in the ‘sixties to enforce the atomism that was the inevitable result. And then he plunged into psychological observation, reviewing everything from New Age cult affiliations, to the popular obsession with oral sex. By the 1970s, the typical American was displaying not some, but all the symptoms of what had once been diagnosed, in the psychology textbooks, as pathological narcissism.

(Any reader who is interested should also consult Lasch’s much-ignored sequel, The Minimal Self, in which he spades deeper into the XIXth-century roots of this phenomenon, and defends the objectivity of his thesis against both critics on his Left, and inconvenient fans on his Right.)

We’re beyond that now. Even the word “narcissism” tends to be employed in pathologically narcissistic ways. And while that older, Christian worldview remains — now as a counter-culture, providing closed environments in which narcissistic behaviour is still instinctively punished — it is going underground. For this new orthodoxy also invaded, and made a conquest of most of the Church, as well as rolling over the “mainstream” Protestant congregations. The victory of narcissism is glaringly apparent in every single liturgical innovation of the New Mass: from the turning of the priest towards the people, to the stripping of the altar now placed between them; and in every direction from there. The new gestures, from the 1960s forward, distract consistently from the divine presence, and mediate a message that is “all about you.”

And so it is with the lonely at Christmas, vaguely remembering some other age. It is all about them. For most my age — and I am getting older — it has been all about us since time out of mind. We grew up in the Pepsi generation.

Those nursing homes are now filled with contemporaries of the Beatles and Elvis Presley, as one may discover in the foyer, when they’re wheeled down for a sing-along. Their memories of Christmas go back, increasingly, to broken homes, where what they actually remember is themselves being “in the way” of their parents’ private lives. Their memories, too, are free of church attendance, and so throw back to the commercialized sentimentality of treats and gift-wrapped, heavily-advertised products around a casually decorated Christmas tree — a kind of pay-off for minding their own business. And, what is the most terrible thing I have seen in there, when that past is challenged, and anything better is proposed: that flicker of defiance, that parody of faith which still declares, after a lifetime of sin and error: “I’m as good as you are!” For it was a culture of narcissism to which they bought in.

This is the new orthodoxy, which Christians must be careful to respect, as tourists remove their shoes when entering a mosque. For it is considered extremely bad form, to disturb the votaries while they are at prayer, making their devotions to the pond image.

But the winds howl, and the waters roughen, and Christ was always coming. It is something to think about, for no matter how you cut it — whether you are a traditional Christian (there can be no other kind), or a perfectly conventional, orthodox Narcissist — the message of Christmas is not, never was, and by its meaning never will be, “all about you.”


My thanks to David Zinck, a gentleman of Alberta, the first to commission an Essay under my new “Command Performance” programme. For the modest sum of five hundred undervalued Canadian dollars, one gets to assign me a Topic. (Of course, what I’ll have to say on that Topic is something that cannot be stipulated.)

A sign

A few astute readers, rooting through my archives, have noticed not only the disappearance of Comments from old posts, but too, the gradual disappearance of the posts themselves. This is to some purpose, for I’ve begun to take old posts and trash them, if that’s what they deserve; or revise and re-post what I think can be salvaged. There is something called the Wayback Machine somewhere in the Internet (here, in fact), which I have not bothered to master. I am told that the diligent may find all the original Idleposts and Comments in there, should they insist upon exhumation. I mention this today because for the first time I am, indeed, drawing fragments forward from an old and deleted post. Should gentle reader suffer an experience of déjà vu, he should take heart; for it is entirely possible that he is not losing his mind.


Once upon a time, in the early spring, I was riding through Warwickshire. It happened that in those days I owned an art calendar, with magnificent reproductions from a Book of Hours. It was never for the right year: I had bought it remaindered. But I’d sliced off the numbers, and hung it on my wall anyway, changing each month; for it was so beautiful. And while driving north towards Warwick Town, through an icy fog that seemed to brush all modernity away, I could construe the old, mediaeval landscape.

A most extraordinary thing happened. From a single steeply rolling field, the fog had lifted. A farmer was leading a bullock and a plough. It was a scene right out of that Book of Hours. No doubt an eccentric person, the farmer appeared even to be dressed for another century: tunic and cloak, leggings, an arming cap. Perhaps he was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism; they were legion then. But no, I hadn’t imagined it, for the driver of the car hit the brakes, and backed up for a better look.

Now, Jesus was born in a manger. He was born into the condition of most men, through most of history. Few of us lived in palaces, or even cities until quite recently. We make a crèche to remind us of the circumstances. Yet we would be terrified to live like that, in a world sans media, sans malls and shopping, sans penicillin and painkillers, sans mobile devices. Conversely, our world, though it makes room for a lot of stuff, makes little for Christ. And we are not happy. We live in sin, and do not realize that sin makes us sad.

Illness and pain are a kind of cure, however. They can return us to that older and simpler condition without any effort on our part. To be cold and shivering; to be dizzy from lack of food; to lose all pleasure in toys and gadgets; to discern death in a face that we glimpse in our own mirror. One could say too much for suffering; these days we say hardly enough.

Can that infant Jesus talk to our world? To people habituated to hearing only what they want to hear? Who would rather tell Christ what he ought to say, than listen? Can one hear a voice effectively jammed in the electronic aether? Perhaps this is why He is heard more in Africa, at this moment; in Africa where so much less is in the way.

I do not, incidentally, enjoy pain or illness; I don’t think many people do. I am only saying that they have their uses. What I find remarkable, looking back in remembrance of our Western “Age of Faith,” is not the cry of the afflicted. It is that Christ could be heard, could be known, could be welcomed, even by people in perfect health. When the grand verities of human life have not been pushed away, one has a sense of angels.

God keep us and return us to the simple way, no matter what the cost. Let us somehow come to hear the bells ring forth, out of the darkness from the Yule’s First Mass, over the land that men once tilled with their own hands. Let us remember exactly what came ad pastores — to the shepherds, towards Christmas morning.

For there were in that country shepherds, keeping their watch by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of the Lord shone round them, and they were very afraid. But the angel said: Fear not. I bring good tidings of great joy, that shall be unto all men. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign: You shall find the child wrapped in swaddling, laid in a manger.

Gloria in altissimis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.


It is sad to see old churches being closed, such as Saint-Charles in Ottawa — once a blazing hearth of faith to French Canadians on this Anglo side of the Ottawa River, now dry bones. It is the latest in that benighted archdiocese to be sold to the developers, for the price of the land. (Four million!) Soon Ottawans will be driving by another glitzy new box of “condoms,” for their new age of condominium living. The press release praises this developer’s “creative plans.” Perhaps he will retain a piece of the old tower to give his flats that upmarket, “heritage” touch.

But as my correspondent said, the building had already been “re-purposed”; or as I tend to put it, “V-2’d.” It is the same story everywhere: the old altar, rails and kneelers ripped out, along with any other “traditional” furnishings; the confessionals closed then eliminated; the liturgy stripped down from Chant to karaoke; the gorgeous old lectionaries and missals pulped; the frescoes painted over, the statues broken off and dump-trucked to the landfills. New priests, with the intellectual reach and spiritual depth of sociology majors — and not a word of Latin — do their part to finish the job in the souls of the parishioners themselves. As a last gesture the “liturgists” arrive, from central casting, to scour the place of any surviving trace of its Catholic past. In approximately 100 percent of cases, the congregation fades away.

In the case of Saint-Charles, the wreckers arrived in 1969. In the glib words of its potted history: “Originally, the church was ornately decorated, but … it underwent extensive renovations and lost most of its decorations, gaining a more modern and sober look.”

It was from this little church that Father Francois-Xavier Barrette launched, in 1926, the Commandeurs de l’Ordre de Jacques-Cartier, an “all-male … secret society” (as one reads in standard Internet sources, culled from the old anti-Catholic sources). … Yes, we are a big Secret Society, with many more Secret Societies within, and our subtle trick is to meet openly. As Agatha Christie would say, “The place to hide a needle is in a box of needles.” …

By the early 1960s, this Ordre de Jacques-C had more than forty thousand members, in more than a thousand communities, advancing the interests of French-speaking Catholics across Canada and New England, and defending them against Masonic and Orange persecutions. About 1965, it suddenly imploded, leaving the expression of French identity to the monopoly of anti-clerical separatists in Quebec.

Now even the little church in which they started is put out for dog-meal.

The operation continues. The bureaucrats from archdiocesan central instinctively target any church with a thriving congregation — and thus, inevitably, a reputation for foot-dragging, pre-Vatican-II ways. A new rector will appear (“wrecktor” I like to type), to make “a few changes,” and bring the place in line with the latest “policies.” The phenomenon is hardly restricted to Ottawa; I get the same news from across Canada and those USA. And every church is doomed, from the moment this cancer has been implanted. … Let me stop this recitation here.

For again, as I have been arguing lately, faithful Catholics must not despair. The devil will surely have his day, but he has no tomorrow. The liberal priests cannot replace themselves, for from the moment they get their claws into a parish, there will be no new vocations. Liberalism can destroy, but is absolutely incapable of building. The dead will bury their dead, and the living will rise.

It is better than that, for as I am persuaded, Christ will snatch from the jaws of Hell any one of the lost souls, who shows some sign of genuine contrition.


Meanwhile, in breaking ecclesiastical news, I see that Pope Francis has sent his Curia off to Christmas with “sixteen paragraphs of sustained and immoderate abuse” (Hunwicke). The poor man seems unable to please me. While I, too, might have derived warm emotional satisfaction from having a go at those Red Hats — who, to the best of my knowledge, persistently sabotaged the papacy of Benedict XVI — I truly do not think the Church can benefit from these endless, theatrical, headline-grabbing displays. That, should anyone care to know, is my first and principal criticism of the current Roman regime: not that the Pope is especially “heretical,” or a “bad man,” or whatever, but that he is reckless, imprudent.

Dating Christmas

If there are thirty people in a room, the chances are good that two will share a birthday. Indeed, there is less than one chance in three that this won’t happen. Double the number in the room, however, and the chances against don’t halve; rather they fall nearly to zero. By the time seventy people have arrived, the chance that no two share a birthday is one in a thousand.  The “birthday problem” is good mathematical fun. Every code-breaker knows how to use this key to probability theory. It is the beginning of wisdom with regard to coincidences. That is to say, in many cases, the absence of a coincidence would be the bigger weird.

But what are the chances that just two people will share the same birthday? Pretty slim. I’d say about one in three hundred and sixty-five. (Actually, three hundred sixty-six and one quarter, but we won’t go into it.)

Now, Christmas comes but once a year, and since the beginning of the third century — at the very latest — it has come in the West on the 25th of December. The Roman Saturnalia came on the 17th of December. Note that this is not the same date. Yet I must have been told a hundred times, by people who know zilch about Christianity, or the history of much anything else, that Christmas was designed to replace the Roman Saturnalia, and was an adaptation of that old pagan festival.

One should count to eight before giving opinions on subjects one knows nothing about. (I often wish they would do this in Rome.) True, Christmas and Saturnalia both happen near the winter solstice, but neither of them on it, and anyway, so what?

Tertullian, very early in that third century, is already making fun of people who think Christians might take Saturnalia seriously. (See his De Fuga in Persecutione, published 208 AD, and you might also want to check out his Apologeticus, from a few years earlier.) He says, for instance, that the festival involves the custom of ritual bathing, and admits that he bathed on the very morning of Saturnalia. He bathes on many other mornings, too, yet as he explains, his purpose is not to honour pagan gods. It is instead to make himself clean and decent.

But here the joke turns around on itself. Tertullian also contrasts the pagan festival with Christian observances. One of his examples is holiday gift-giving. The pagans are all rushing about, acquiring presents to give one another — images come to mind of the Saturnalian shopping season in ancient Rome. He mentions that they hang wreaths, and other festive decorations; they also party and drink a lot. But not the Christians: they don’t do that. By contrast, they are habitually sacramental; not loud and lewdly materialist like those pagans. On their holy days, one finds the Christians soberly at prayer.

So here we are, eighteen centuries later, never having dreamt of turning Saturnalia into Christmas; but having, after all this time, turned Christmas into Saturnalia instead.

The better-educated wiseacre will try for a connexion between Christmas and Mithraic festivals at Alexandria. (Fat chance.) Or perhaps, the celebration of Sol Invictus, ordered by the Emperor Aurelian, which did at least fall on December 25th. But there the evidence strongly suggests the co-optation went the other way: for the Christians had taken that date before Aurelian was even born.

How had the date been selected? … Curious minds might want to know.

Joseph Ratzinger looked into this question in his (indispensible) book, The Spirit of the Liturgy. Slightly different dates were selected, East and West, for complicated reasons; but in the West, the choice was confident and consistent. This is because the date for the Annunciation had already been established (in the West) as the 25th of March — the ancient New Year, by the sighting of the vernal equinox, associated with the beginning of the world. Add exactly nine months to that, and Bob’s your uncle.

Peter Geach

But of course, we are all Jacobites up here in the High Doganate. (See here.) We do not allow this to distract us, however, from our loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen. While it is true, quite frankly, that she is not a Stuart, Elizabeth II is a very fine Queen: the bestest you could imagine. And, a considerable improvement on the previous Elizabeth (daughter of the monster, Henry VIII, and of his tart, Anne Boleyn), who was death on Catholics.

I have this “theory” (in the post-modern sense), that while contradictory loyalties are impermissible in religion, they are perfectly normal in civil (“secular”) life, and might even be encouraged, for they make a practical alternative to violence. I know several United Statist Americans, for instance, who are monarchist to the bone, yet pledge unhesitating allegiance to the Flag of their Republic.

Doctor Johnson, an unimpeachably Tory guide, expressed this double standard nicely when, notwithstanding his own openly Jacobite sympathies, and permanent opposition to that soi-disant “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 (to which arguably he owed his freedom as a journalist), he was offered a pension by the reigning Hanover king. He took it; and to his young friend Boswell, who mentioned howls against this apparent hypocrisy, he replied, laughing:

“Why, sir, it is a mighty foolish noise that they make. I have accepted of a pension as a reward which has been thought due to my literary merit; and now that I have this pension, I am the same man in every respect that I have ever been; I retain the same principles. It is true that I cannot now curse the house of Hanover; nor would it be decent for me to drink King James’s health in the wine that King George gives me money to pay for. But, sir, I think the pleasure of cursing the house of Hanover, and drinking King James’s health, are amply overbalanced by three hundred pounds a year.”


It is the anniversary of Peter Geach, who died age ninety-seven last year. He is one of my great heroes and, oddly enough, he was married to another one: Elizabeth Anscombe. As ever, these days, gentle reader may look them up in the Wicked Paedia, should the names not of themselves ring out in glory for him. They were, in different but highly complementary ways, two of England’s finest minds, whose interests converged in philosophical logic. It is thanks to Anscombe that we can begin to plumb the depth of Wittgenstein’s analytical reasoning, and perhaps also to her that he died a Catholic; but her own works go well beyond this. It is thanks to Geach (though acting not alone) that we have “Analytical Thomism” on our plates for future digestion. Geach and Anscombe alike applied the best of XXth-century analytical reasoning to develop the insights of the high Scholastics, and bring them (as it were) up to date. And while I may have no right to an opinion, on matters passing often over my head, I am nevertheless persuaded that something extremely fruitful was achieved.

They were both knock-you-down-the-stairs Catholic (by conversion), and fecund, too, with respect to children. I collect anecdotes of their domestic life. Among my favourite is when a lost child was returned to them by the police. Peter glared at the errant infant, presented at the front door. He then called out to his wife: “Is this one of ours?” (Alas, the outraged teller of this tale did not smoak the remark’s drollness.)

Another is of one of their youngest, told that if her teddy bear wasn’t in the parlour it must be in her bedroom. “That doesn’t follow!” the little girl parried; for logic had spread through the household.

I think of them, too, in their parish church, on a Sunday when the priest was uttering sentimental bosh from the pulpit. Peter Geach stood up to declare, “That is heresy!” — and the whole tribe of them marched out.

It is bad manners to interrupt homilies, but there are worse things than bad manners, and heresy is certainly among them. It would be a real service if “progressive” priests today were frequently confronted with their crimes, and if necessary driven out of the priesthood. Indeed, I attribute our current priest shortage to the failure to drive bad priests out. They have a terribly demoralizing effect on the faithful, and contribute to the perception that being a Catholic priest is a low calling. Conversely, charity requires that parishioners be confronted, who claim to be Catholic when they have not embraced every sentence of the Creed. They thus become, until properly catechized, a serious impediment to the genuine growth of the Church. We are, after all (as Geach himself often observed) supposed to be directing the sheep towards Heaven and away from Hell, not the other way.

Vox clamantis in deserto, as it was proclaimed in the Mass this morning.  Parate viam Domini: rectas facite semitas ejus!

(Or, as we say in English: “Make straight the way of the Lord!”)


On another “theory” I have, that recommending one book may make more sense than recommending ten, I want to call attention to Peter Geach’s Virtues. (Look here.) I think this the most useful, and immediately accessible, of all his works, and perhaps the most exhilarating. The summary table of contents alone should alarm and excite every sloppy thinker, who has tired of his own wetness. Geach turns his formidable intellectual powers upon those Seven — the four Cardinal Virtues, inherited from the Greeks, and the three Theological Virtues, added by Saint Paul — to show what they are, and what they are not. As a young Anglican, freshly converted to Christianity, I recall the effect this book had on me: of waking up whenas I had been sleeping.

Geach does not provide the last word on the subject, nor pretend to provide it. He is content instead to show that the Virtues make internal sense, how they cast light on each other, and the deadly seriousness with which they must be taken. That is more than enough for 170 pages, every sentence of which is not only perfectly hung, but to a good mind, thrilling.

In those days

Two articles by Tony Esolen, which appeared this week before my Internet-trawling eyes, strike me as having been entirely worth the attention of anyone who missed them, and good to consult for contemporary “background” on this last, first, and most holy of Ember Days. I cannot improve either by paraphrase, so shall direct gentle reader: here, and here.

Dr Esolen will be known to many as the “Modern Library” translator of the Divine Comedy. His is the edition from which it should be taught to English students, these days, for it takes Dante seriously both as Italian poet and Catholic thinker — presenting us with a whole-Dante instead of the usual half-Dante. The translation itself is en face with the Italian, and Esolen’s very-English iambics have the remarkable ability to echo rather than jam Dante’s terza rima — with neither the stilt of an alien rhyme scheme, nor the sponging absorbency of prose. His translations of Lucretius, and of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, are also worth a look. The gentleman is an English perfesser, and it is a matter of some urgency to make English readers once again acquainted with the broader European literary heritage, within which English is sometimes only a rather parochial part. This, in turn, will help rub the nose of that reader in the fact that Western Civ is essentially Catholic, and that, oddly enough, the higher reaches of English literature happen to be Catholic, too.

See also his very useful book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, or his earlier, Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature. Esolen — who like most others, had to find his own way out of the confining, into the broad — is a brilliant mediator between today’s college students as we find them, and what they could be with a little education.


One thing leads to another, and with Christmas approaching, let us get back to Holy Church. In the two articles I flagged, Esolen touches upon the continuing rage to destroy our Church, from within. This became worse, recently, with a sudden increase of posturing drivel from Rome; though I hope it will prove the last senile flourish of that “Spirit of Vatican II” — the god to whom post-Catholics pray. It is discouraging to see the Church once again rolling over, on the chance that the Zeitgeist will stroke her belly. So let us not be discouraged. It is a penance and chastisement which faithful Catholics should cheerfully endure; one which by its nature cannot last much longer.

The Church is, and the Church teaches, as she has always taught; not as the world teaches, by precept alone. Our most effective statesmen — in raw, historical terms — have always been the Saints. (Popes have only counted when they have approached to this muscular standard; all other bishops likewise.) Saints and martyrs have been our heroes and our leaders, and this will never change: for our mission is to conquer and sustain hearts, not merely to occupy more demographic territory.

It is a mission that has been carried along, day by day, and hour by hour, through the Liturgy. And here I am using this word in its broadest sense, to include not only the precious words but the music to wing them; the Calendar to encircle the seasons; the works of art and architecture that bring the words home to our eyes. This Liturgy is the school of the Saints: a mystical teaching which gives spiritual depth to the surface moral and doctrinal instruction, opening the Word in every pore of our being, and focusing us upon the living Bread — with our whole heart, our whole soul, and our whole mind — giving us the strength to love our neighbour.

Those who contradict Christ, as Judas did — by taking the part of Martha against Mary — “know not what they do.” Therefore, they cannot sustain their attack. The wilful destruction of our cultural heritage, the schemes to drain reverence from the Mass, the desecration of everything that is beautiful, will not convert a single soul. People do not go to church to have the squalor of this world pushed back in their faces; the poor do not go there to have what they had taken away. We must do what we can to preserve what the devils would destroy — and continue in Hope, within our hearts, even after the devils have smashed up our churches and our Mass.

We must not despair, even when we can do nothing. The Holy Spirit will be rebuilding from the bottom, even as the vandals strike from the top. This appears to be happening now, by the miraculous revival of the Old Mass; by restorations within the monastic movements; by the recovery of interest in polyphony and chant; by the mysterious calling of so many young to traditionalist vocations — things inconceivable, only a decade ago. God does not lie, nor cheat on His promises; Christ will not abandon His Church.

In diebus illis: clamabunt ad Dominum a facie tribulantis, et mittet eis salvatorem, et propugnatorem, qui liberet eos.

(From today’s Mass.)

Ten Editions

On the northwest corner of Spadina and Sussex avenues, in Toronto, Ont., there remains a shophouse, from another era. There were once many like it, in that section of Spadina near Bloor; but the contrast today with sterile office and apartment towers makes this survivor stand out as an architectural enchantment. A smaller late Victorian building attaches to its north side, to absorb the aggressive vileness of a post office in the 1970s “lavatory” style, just farther. It was a shophouse, too, once upon a time, before its show window was bricked up. There is rich foliage on the other, corner side: a miniature urban jungle that the tenant of an apartment upstairs took it upon himself to plant and nurture, full of butterflies in the summer. The scene lifts one’s heart: a tiny island of humanity in a post-modern, urban shatter zone.

Since 1973, it has been a second-hand bookshop. That is now more than forty years ago, and like other regular customers of my age, I have warm memories not only of books, but of the people associated with them — the beloved dead, as well as the beloved living — through all this time. The ceiling is high, the shelves climb to the top of the outer walls, and there are ladders on rails to reach them. As I climb, memories of books I once found flood back into mind. And down I look upon these young people, making their new memories today. For the store is at the edge of the downtown campus of the University of Toronto, and there is (even today!) a class of students who are addicted to books — not slippery electronic “text,” but real books.

At the back of the store, in an ancient extension, one book-lined corridor leads through a door to a narrow courtyard. It is just there — a little overgrown, with light filtering through tree branches, dappling mossy surfaces of wood and masonry; or shadows gathering in the late afternoon. I mention this only because, so many times, in summer with that door open for a breeze, I have caught a glimpse of paradise.

It was “Volume One,” in my youthful recollections of the place: they had moved up from farther down Spadina. (Old hands of Toronto’s antiquarian rag trade will pause in reverence for that name.) “Atticus Books” replaced them, in the later ‘seventies; and when Atticus transferred to Markham Street a few years later, “Ten Editions” took the space. For the last thirty years, that has been the shingle, and the character of the store has settled.

Susan Duff has long been proprietress of Ten Editions, but it was her mother who went into the business, naming it in honour of her ten children. Susan was her most bookish child; and when I close my eyes, I still see her as the pretty, young shop assistant who first turned my head all those years ago.

From mother to daughter, this business passed; and both have been distinguished by infallibly good taste in the selection of titles, over a very broad range of subjects and genres, without the slightest hint of pretension or pomposity. This has been, through the years, the shop to visit for books to read — not for show, nor for “collectors.” And it has stood up for that very reason, when other second-hand stores have closed, or disappeared into the Internet. For people who do actually read must also browse and dawdle. They are not like the guided missiles looking for a “course book,” who if they come in here, will be greeted by a charming smile of incomprehension.

The store will soon be gone, however. The University of Toronto unfortunately owns some adjoining land, and will be able to acquire the property on which Ten Editions rests through “processes” I have not the heart to go into. The academic bureaucracy has set its eyes on building a gleaming new residence for the vacuous “Starbucks culture” of contemporary student life. They are lawyered up, and sitting on millions of appropriated tax dollars: no little bookseller will get in their way.

No one who lives in the city — or anywhere else with commercial value — has influence over what will be done. His neighbourhood will be levelled and cratered more efficiently than by saturation bombing, once the planners have decided on a scheme. It does not matter whether the regime is nominally “socialist” or “capitalist”: we live in the interstices of enormous bureaucratic machines, that may not even notice what is crushed beneath them. And the people who drive the machines, are those who know how to be ruthless.

O Adonai

The Lord (Adonai in Hebrew) who made the Covenant with Israel, the Lord who delivered His people in that Covenant, is the Lord of the Creation, or as we say, Christ Jesus. My title this morning is that of the second of the venerable “O Antiphons” — responsories or little hymns of one stanza, each providing a mystical key to the Psalm or Canticle it accompanies — which began yesterday with O Sapientia. They carry us through the last days of Advent, at Vespers in the incomparably beautiful liturgy of old Holy Church: from the 17th to the 23rd of December, and thus to the threshold of Christmastide, in the Vigil of Yule itself. They are attached to the Magnificat — sung just before and just after this most audacious and electrifying of Canticles — and in the old usage of the Middle Ages, the church bells would sound and resound as they were sung.

Each of these antiphons turns on a title for Christ, prefigured in the Old Testament, and they are successively, day by day: O Sapientia (“Wisdom”), O Adonai (“Lord”), O Radix (“Root”), O Clavis (“Key”), O Oriens (“Dawn”), O Rex (“King”), O Emmanuel (“God-with-us”). The seven are knitted together and reprised in the song we still sing as an Advent carol: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

These O Antiphons are very old, indeed pre-mediaeval, for they are attested going back into what the anti-Christian scholars of the Enlightenment dubbed, “The Dark Ages.” They are mentioned for instance by Boethius in the early VIth century. Variations no doubt existed before that; as also long after in the parallels to the Roman rite, wherein other O Antiphons are added, on the same theme of Christ’s Hebrew titles.

They are sung at Vespers, because Christ was seen to come in the evening hour of the world, and they are sung with the Magnificat because it was by Mary that He came.

In my considered opinion — for I have pulled my hair working at it — these Antiphons must be sung in Latin, because they are untranslatable. To my mind, the best attempts may be found in the Marquess of Bute’s translation of the Roman Breviary (see page 243 of the Winter volume). They can be paraphrased, or elegantly glossed, with patience. As ever, in a problem of translation, the difficulty lies in more than the words, for there is a conceptual matrix that requires the original language for precision. Sometimes this will present small difficulties, sometimes very large.

Tomorrow, for instance, in the antiphon, O Radix Jesse, we are dealing with the tree of Jesse, which we might take for a family tree — which it is, glibly. We are faced with something that gobsmacks the modern reader, right at the start of the First Gospel: “The generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Our modern mind is arrested by the very notion of opening with a genealogical table — with any genealogical table, let alone one for God.

It is good for our modern mind to be astounded, for the beginning of wisdom is quite often a smack upside the head. We may be genuinely enlightened to discover that the old image of this “family tree” had more than a trunk and bare branches. The deep roots sank out of view, themselves branching in the mysterious earth; the foliage above this ground opened to the eye as a banner of revelation.

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum — “O Root of Jesse, that stands for an ensign of the people.” Today we stand, in our shrivelled “nuclear families” (supposing there survives so much as that) without anything much resembling the understanding of “family” shared by our ancestors. And here, for the benefit of the multiculturaloids, let me state that I mean all our ancestors from every culture; for this autochthonic sense of going back, “to Adam” as it were, is universal among pre-moderns.

This is just a blog; one would need a book to expand upon the “false consciousness” that encloses modern man, as he becomes severed from the temporal continuities which attach him not only to people he has met, but to his most distant ancestors, and to his and their most distant descendants. Our world is small, narrow, tight, breathless, and cornered in our rat-like self-esteem. The older one had the opposite of these qualities, and was not so abstract. What you did not know, you did not know; but what you knew led outward in all directions, and through that most acute, and most typically human of senses (as Thomas Aquinas pointed out): not sight, nor hearing, but the sense of touch.

The mortal clay of man was something entirely different to men intimately acquainted with the sources of their food. It was not some disposable raw material; there was no “dirt” in our modern sense, for everything had value. The clay was vividly alive, in the hands of the potter, and they could not be detached from their making. They were not some abstract “body plus a soul,” but integrated; the animated flesh was raised from living mud and ensouled. And body-and-soul would that Christian man be resurrected: as he truly was, and not as a ghost or any other heretical phantom.

Because these Antiphons are short — let me say almost Japanese in their brevity — it is worth praying them in the old Latin, even if gentle reader knows no Latin at all. He may piece them together, a little at a time, from the English prose in his missal, or easily found through a few Internet keystrokes, till he is praying them in Latin. Little by little they will reveal to him an extraordinary picture of the meaning of this Advent — of the many, many dimensions of it, converging in the unfathomable miracle of that first Christmas morning.