Essays in Idleness



The Armenians still celebrate “The Coming of the Son of God into the Temple” (i.e. Candlemas) on the 14th of February. Terndez, as they call it, is older than our Western celebration of Christmas. The “forty days” were once counted from the Epiphany, according to the Lady Egeria (more below), which might explain that date. Later, upon the establishment of a fixed date for Christmas at Rome, by counting nine months forward from the Annunciation, the new date for Candlemas (today, February 2nd) was established by countiing forward forty days from that. We glimpse the reasoning in an old arithmetic, working from traditions in approximate agreement.

Knowledge of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, as of the ancient Hebrew ritual that lay behind it (the purification of Mary, forty days after childbirth), came to the Armenians by a different route than that to Rome through the Greeks. Information travelled also to Persia, India, Ethiopia — by other routes, now lost in the sands. It travelled at different speeds: to us in the West rather slowly, in this case. The more one looks into ancient liturgical practices, the clearer it becomes that the apostolic tradition — or “Tradition” as we write in the Catholic Church — is as real as Scripture. The same accounts travelled many routes; the same letters were carefully transcribed, and themselves sent on many journeys. Everywhere men already Christian sought the best possible information. The truth was winnowed out.

That God’s hand was in it, we cannot doubt. Yet we can also understand this from a human point of view: that the process of establishing authority cannot be controlled by any one man, or committee. As in courts of law, or even disputes on the Internet, the true can defeat the false because it makes sense: is internally and externally coherent. The false account fails because it doesn’t make sense: is contradicted by facts already known, or falls apart in self-contradiction. By prayer, but also by diligent inquiry a consensus emerges, which can withstand any blast. From this great distance in time, we cannot reconstruct the whole process, but we can still see it at work, the more clearly when we are not encumbered by our modernist baggage.

It would not have been possible for “redactors” to operate in the way that modern biblical scholars like to assume, on the basis of no physical evidence. They imagine editorial habits that belong not to antiquity, but to their own time. No one was in a position to play God with widely disseminated manuscripts. The Canon was discerned, as received. Likewise, the traditions were discerned, as received. In both cases, the process was rather to separate the wheat from the chaff. The Four Gospels are a proof of that: they contain minor contradictions, that were not smoothed over; had that been tried, variant readings would even then have given the game away. They were selected for their pedigree, and for the ring of truth, in light of many other factors unknown or only darkly known today. We have every reason to trust the sincerity, as well as the high intelligence, of those who chose each “this” over “that.”

The belief that everyone in the past was stupid, and that we alone are smart, is one of the conceits passed down from the Enlightenment. It is expressed with great smugness among progressive elites, and gives a fair indication of their own intellectual limitations.

Candlemas (though not yet with candles) is described in the travel memoirs of the Lady Egeria, making her pilgrimage in the Holy Land in the fourth century. She writes “hic celebrantur,” indicating that the feast was then unknown where she came from (Galicia, in north-west Spain). I mention this because I have so often been irritated by the dismissive tone in reference works, when a Christian feast is dated to some pope who formally proclaimed it in such-and-such a century, as if he had invented it on the spot. Our Candlemas, for instance, originates in the Church of Jerusalem, and must go back many generations before Egeria witnessed it. It has nothing to do with the much later Pope Gelasius, or the pagan Lupercalia or … other common rot.

The focus in Egeria’s time is not on the purification of Mary, but instead on Christ through the eyes of Simeon and Anna. The “forty days” are not mentioned in Saint Luke, but are nevertheless taken for granted. This is because the Hebrew rite of purification after childbirth, specified in Leviticus, was understood. We can still retrieve that, but if we couldn’t the biblical scholars would have had a field day. This is a point about old sources that we neglect at our peril: writers tend not to bother repeating what everyone already knows. It does not follow that we must reject everything not attested in a literary source that happened to come down to us. (In addition to making best efforts to explain away what is directly attested.)

“On that day,” Egeria writes, “there is a procession into the Anastasis [the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre], and all assemble there for the liturgy; everything is performed in the prescribed manner with the greatest solemnity, just as on Easter Sunday. All the priests give sermons, and the bishop, too; all preach on the Gospel text describing how on the fortieth day Joseph and Mary took the Lord to the Temple, and how Simeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw Him, and what words they spoke on seeing the Lord, and of the offerings which his parents brought. After all these ceremonies, the Eucharist is then celebrated, and the dismissal given.”

The Itinerarium Egeriae is an invaluable account of liturgy and ritual that descended within that Church of Jerusalem directly from the life of Christ. The Christians in those parts knew exactly where Golgotha was, exactly where the Nativity occurred — exactly where to dig on sites the pagan Romans had covered with landfill during their persecutions. There had been humbler shrines on those sites long before the Byzantines built great churches over them. The archaeologists have gradually discovered, sometimes to academic chagrin, that these were not “urban legends.”

Our authoress had lived in Jerusalem continuously for at least three years, with wide contacts among guides, priests, and the Christian laity. As well, she had travelled everywhere in that land, and from Sinai through the Levant. She was a learned and inquisitive lady, who checked every assertion she could against physical evidence, readily at hand. When sixteen years ago I filled a Christmas newspaper section in the Ottawa Citizen with a very long article entitled, “Looking for Christ under stones in Israel,” I found a modern edition of Egeria (edited Gingras, 1970) extremely helpful. It was an aid in slicing through much twaddle and confusion in secondary and sub-secondary guidebooks. I had in my hand the work of a predecessor who had done what I was trying to do, but had years at her disposal, not the couple of months I had for my assignment; who was more than sixteen centuries closer to events, with that long-perished world still everywhere around her.

In an age of “irony” and malicious scepticism, it is best to go to the sources. Lady Egeria is of course just one. Far more existed in her time. Some wash up by happenstance, still; many others would have been found in monastic libraries had they not been so extensively rifled, torched and trashed during the Reformation, the French Revolution, and subsequent explosions of “secular humanism.” But we do probably have today enough copies printed of the Migne series to reconstruct what we need to know after the next grand conflagration; and innumerable copies of the Bible. It will thus be practically impossible to erase:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace / according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen / thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared / before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles / and the glory of thy people Israel.

Unto this last

Unless gentle reader had the misfortune to be only in range of the Novus Ordo, it was Septuagesima today. I am spoilt in Parkdale; my heart goes out to those who have suffered “the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time,” the liturgical significance of which seems intended to escape us, unless it is to affirm the “hermeneutic of rupture” that is crackling once again.

With each passing year it becomes harder to understand how men who were outwardly sane could have done what was done to our Mass, nearly half a century ago. This hardly followed from anything decided at Vatican II. There, the integrity of the Mass was affirmed, and what was done less than five years later would have been unthinkable to “progressives” and “conservatives” alike.

Pope Saint John XXIII had himself re-affirmed the importance of Latin, in the Mass of the Ages, and throughout the Church, echoing many popes before him on the importance of a well-educated clergy (not merely taught Latin, but taught in this universal language). He reminded that none must graduate from the seminaries whose Latin is so weak that they cannot celebrate the Mass in its fullness, its beauty. Too, he reminded that our clergy must be able to read the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, her canon law and all her other documents, from all centuries, without difficulty. All of this is necessary to priestly formation: for the priesthood is not a low calling.

Here is a paradox that every intelligent, perceptive, and observant Catholic, of a certain age, should already know: that wherever the Novus Ordo has advanced (the quicker in its most happyclap iterations) vocations have disappeared; that wherever the Vetus Ordo has survived or returned, vocations are plentiful. Restore that Mass and the Church herself begins to be restored; young men hear the call and come forward. They will never be attracted to a life of sacrifice by a daily ritual that is trite. Undermine that immortal reverence, discard what at first glance looks “out of date” — because the “liturgist” does not understand it — and the Church dies, in ignominious surrender to passing fashion and fads.

Yet even while Pope John’s apostolic constitution, Veterum sapientia (1962), was still wet in the ink, the ecclesiastical bureaucrats and “reformers” were at work in the opposite, “modernizing” direction. I have spoken with more than one seminarian from the early 1960s who recalled how, from the end of one semester to the beginning of the next, as Latin was replaced with the vernacular, the floor fell in. The atmosphere was dramatically changed, in a way that had not happened in two thousand years. How, now, John XXIII must weep over what was done, and is still being done in his name.

The loss of Latin in the seminaries signalled the collapse of all other academic standards. To my mind the nauseating sex scandals in the Church followed, too, from that “liberalization” — for vocations plummeted, and the bishops began to take anybody. Whole orders within the Church evaporated. In so many convents discipline was forsaken, and we had the spectacle of “radical,” politicized monks and nuns abandoning their habits and their vows, shrieking about in demonic helter-skelter.

What was done in “the spirit of Vatican II” was done against the express direction of the Council itself; its documents cited, when cited at all, in a selective, sophistical, deceitful way. To descend into the details is to be drawn down into the mystery of evil: for again, the question becomes, How could men in their right minds be doing things like this? How could they not see the terrible consequences to the Church they purported to love, and to the souls of their fellow Catholics? Why was it allowed?

All of the post-conciliar popes till the present one have struggled to restore what was taught at the Council, consistent with the teaching of the many centuries before; all worked, often heroically, against the Zeitgeist, and to contain a Fifth Column metastasizing within the Church herself. It is the solemn and particular duty of each pope to defend the deposit of faith against every effort to corrupt it, and to keep the practice of the Church consistent with her doctrines. What a priest must know, a pope must know, to his fingertips, restored every day in the Mass. He must never have his own “agenda,” his own cheering section. His job by its nature must be very lonely, as Paul VI once said in a moment of desolation; it is to serve — servus servorum Dei, to be servant of the servants of God. We should pray the more earnestly for Pope Francis who, though he might have the best will in the world, is himself our first papal product of the seminary environment, post-Vatican II.


Today we have entered into Shrovetide, with much of the living Church unaware that this has happened. It is from this point, in the tradition, that the Alleluia is no longer sung, until Easter. In an old Gallican liturgy I once saw, metrically sung, the ancient explanation of it: that we fallen men who live on Earth are not worthy to sing the Alleluia unceasingly.

The succession of Sundays, from Septuagesima to Sexagesima, Quinquagesima, and Quadragesima, is the ancient countdown to Lent. (Tomorrow’s Candlemas, on the fortieth day of Christmas, will be the last echo of the season of Christmas and the Epiphany, mirroring the forty days of Lent.) The vestments change to violet, and the great readings from the Book of Genesis begin, expounding our banishment and exile from Eden, as we renew the task of repentance. The Gospel in the Old Mass today was the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, “unto this last” — a detailed affront to every modernist sensibility, for in it Christ showed that human ideas of “fairness” are rubbish; that justice and mercy are compact in opposition to them.

We are turned at this moment towards Easter, and our preparation for a Lent which was once taken by the whole Church — and is still taken in the hearts of the faithful — with spiritual gravity. In the Greek Triodion, we find parallels to every action in our old Latin Mass, and the same gravity in preparation for the Great Fast.

This entire season of Septuagesima, in which so many strands of Christian teaching are woven together, is omitted in what is now called the “Ordinary Form” of the Mass, with its succession of inconsequential “ordinary Sundays.” Yet it remains the birthright of every Catholic, restored to us unambiguously in Pope Benedict’s motu proprio of 2007, and not to be denied to us any longer.

It is for we the laity to demand the return everywhere — in every church, on every day — of our Mass in its “Extraordinary Form.” For even when poorly-educated clergy have forgotten, we may be inspired to remember: that our Church must be like unto her Founder, and that Our Lord was not an “ordinary man,” but invincibly Extraordinary.