Of halcyon nests

The halcyon days were not in our fondly remembered past, but occur in the dead of winter, according to the best ancient and mediaeval sources. They are named for the bird who nests on the sea. That bird — which we might mistake for a kingfisher — has the power to calm the waves while brooding her eggs. The Indian Summer of the north — or I think it is Saint Martin’s Summer on the Water’s other side, or Saint Luke’s — may last a week in December. But in the Aegean, Halcyon (or Alcyone as I like to call her, daughter of Aeolus), may take a fortnight from the mariner’s busy schedule.

But here in the Introduction à la vie dévote, of François de Sales, I get further information. Halcyons make their nests like a ball, he says, leaving only a small opening at the top. They build them on the sea shore, and they are so strong and impenetrable that should the sea wash over them, no wet comes inside. Even should they be swept to sea in a storm, they will float upright.

This spiritual director counsels his penitent, Philothea, to be like that: open only to Heaven, and impervious to things that pass. Specifically he refers to the riches of this world, for he is expounding to her that first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Saint Francis of the Château de Sales (ruined by politics) is famously the patron of writers and journalists. A nobleman, from the old Savoyard aristocracy, he had in addition to his classical education good instruction in riding and fencing, and knew how to dance. He was born a gentle soul, in the full meaning, for memories of him before he took orders were of a young man strong and tall, with piercing blue eyes, but reserved and modest. Not all the saints were like this; some, like Saint Vincent de Paul, were short, squat, bulbous of nose, cantankerous, and pushy. (Also ridiculously selfless, and kind.) Francis himself tells us repeatedly, it takes all kinds. But he who retrieved ten-thousands of souls from the Calvinists around Geneva, had that “halcyon” quality.

By the time this man, with a law degree from Padua, was made Bishop of Geneva, he was living almost on air. Without ever making an issue of it, he adopted habits of extreme simplicity, tirelessly visiting his parishes like a pilgrim. He needed every sou for his urgent mission. He could establish his episcopal palace in a gardener’s shed. It was because he conducted his mission cor ad cor, and from the pulpits of little village churches — not as the Calvinists in preaching before huge forcefully-assembled crowds — that he achieved a success finally shown in great numbers.

I have before me my copy of that Introduction to the Devout Life: the Everyman edition translated by the late Edgbaston Oratorian, Michael Day. It fell into my hands many years ago, in some foreign city, when I was looking for something “improving” to read (long before I became a Catholic). Since, I have been unable to say enough about the translator. He adapts and modernizes for the “common reader” without any discernible impairment of sense. (The typical paperback translator makes wanton sacrifices and reckless paraphrases in the vain hope of “popularizing.”) It is the presence of author, not translator, that grows upon one, as if four centuries had left nothing in our way. For those whose French is as bad as mine, this is the perfect crib.

Is it a book only for girls? That was, as I recall, my first impression, but it was corrected as I went along. The brilliance of the book is that the soul to whom it is addressed is feminine, yet in that unearthly way in which all souls are. In the male reader, something is summoned that is feminine, too, yet in no way “girlish.” Quite apart from its high authority as a source of Catholic teaching (Saint Francis is a “Doctor of the Church”), there is a poetry in it which conveys a quality once familiar to men: not fey in the slightest but rather gallant, even “brave” in the older meaning of that word. It corresponds to the masculine ability to cherish. We retrieve it by reading, as it were, over the shoulder of Philothea; it recalls us to all our protective instincts for everything that is beautiful, and chaste. It is opposite to the coarseness and vulgarity we associate with masculinity today; for it is stalwart, tenacious, redoubtable; trusting, and trustworthy, and in itself, truthful and chaste.

Journalists should seek this masculine honesty (to be found, too, in every fine woman), that distinguishes between holy and unholy things. Saint Francis is patron to a journalism that would not be tabloid and crass. It would be one with the spirit of the Confessional, asking at every turn, “What is going on here? What does it look like, and is it really that? What is it quite apart from my own interest in the matter?”

And so the writing proceeds, in the next paragraph of Saint Francis on the virtue of spiritual poverty. He explains what it is, and what it is not. He uses the metaphor of the chemist, who stocks many poisons on his shelves, but does not take them into his body. Each has a purpose, not poisonous in itself, yet which can be turned against its purpose. It is not material wealth that makes us “rich in spirit,” and therefore damnable in some way. It is the ingestion of that wealth into the spirit. Those who are poor, and covet such a wealth, are rich in spirit. As well: those who make a virtue of their wealth, and the risks they have taken to obtain it, until they become insensible to their fever, and to the rapacity with which they commandeer what justly belongs to others. As well: those too distressed by what they have lost, in a season when they lose their old possessions. For everything we have here is only for a time.

Perhaps these points could be made plainer with a practical, contemporary application. Let me provide one.

“Liberation theology” was from its beginning an invention in the spirit of the Great Lie. It is a vicious and an ugly lie — this nonsense about “Christ’s preferential option for the poor” — to the stench of which we have been too long subjected. It still reeks, through almost all “engaged” contemporary journalism, and poisons every clarion call for “equality.” It dishonours the poor. There should be no surprise that there are few vocations, and that the Church withers wherever it is taught (as she has done throughout Latin America). For it is not to make the rich poorer, nor the poor richer, in any worldly sense, that Christ came to us. It was instead to teach the rich and poor alike, from that first Beatitude, to be poor in spirit. Unless this teaching is made clear, our Christian leaders turn their backs on Our Lord, and defraud us of our true heritage — giving their children who ask bread of Heaven, the stone of an earthly avarice and resentment.

Saint Francis of Sales pray for us, and for the restoration of our Christian heritage. Pray for us who write, that we will serve the truth, and expose the lie.