The nice & the good

Judging from email alone, some of the remarks made in this space are impenetrably droll. The more because these are mere essays, squibs: each glancing at a topic from a confined angle. But that is the way things are in this world. It is the blind man with the “ephelant.” (That is how one of my children first pronounced it, so that I still long to misspell and mispronounce, that along with “ekmergency,” “ensaurant,” and while driving along the highway, “Gurger King!” et cetera.)

Too, there may be an element of the transgressive. My Chief Texas Correspondent forwarded this morning an item from Breitbart, in which a long-practising homosexual reports how bored he is with “gay.” It just doesn’t offend people the way it used to. Looking around, he has decided to “transition,” to straight white male.

Perhaps that explains me. Transgressive, anti-bourgeois, Traditional Catholic. I tried “High Church Anglican” but it wasn’t offensive enough.

God comes into this, however, and I believe my orientation is sincere. I am rather in possession of a quasi-theological belief, that God isn’t “nice.” Of course, one needs to explain what one means by that.

Words, English ones and other ones, may have several opposites. “Nice” may oppose “nasty,” but it may also oppose “good.” It can further oppose, or more often adjust or twist, many other notions, depending upon context. I use it in many other contexts; but in the main, I use it as a term of abuse.

Indeed, I don’t even see “nice” and “nasty” as opposites, in many contexts, but as different soundings in the same animal. One is the overlay for the other: “nice” is the fake form of good, “nasty” what this artificial skin is intended to conceal. Test it, just a little scratch, and you will find out what lies underneath the surface.

But sometimes one finds instead an almost innocent puzzlement. For “nice” is then just yesterday’s clothes: the decayed remnant of some better teaching. It is worn out of politeness, because convention demands we still not walk about in the nude. Christians were taught to be good, in some past age. This turned out to be difficult. Today we are neither Christian, nor good, but “niceness” preserves a tattered, informal covering of decency.

We want to be liked, and well-treated. If we are nice, we will pass. If we are nasty, there may be immediate complications. Therefore be nice. Then if you don’t get what you want by being nice, try nasty. I’ve noticed this dynamic operating in myself.

The saints are not nice, and the burning charity we find in them is the opposite of niceness. Like their master, Jesus Christ, they are not inclined to compromise and show. Neither are they inclined to be boorish, for the sake of being boorish. They are not “transgressive” in our fashionable sense. They are not, come down to it, fashionable at all, except among the faithful.

To put this another way, my statement “most people are nice” was to be read in its context, as a mischievous suggestion that most people are not very nice: not under the skin. This I understand to be the Christian teaching, as before it was the Hebrew teaching, proceeding from the phenomenon of Original Sin. The motives we present are not the motives we have, a little beneath the façade of niceness. A little below that surface we are raging apes. If we could see ourselves in a true mirror, we would not like what we saw.

Pursuing the analogy, Christ came to us as a true mirror, against which to judge not others, but ourselves. Too, as an alternative to our own way of being: the human embodiment not of niceness, but of a perfect Love.

“Nice” is the opposite of “love” in this context. Love, even married love, is not chocolates and roses. Though let me say it does not exclude chocolates, or roses. True love is gritty stuff. It requires a loyalty that is in its nature quite unworldly; even a sensuousness that is radically different from the soft pornography that is sold in its place.


On this Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the old liturgy teaches many subtle things. As a private devotion it was very ancient, but as a public devotion of the Church it surfaced suddenly in the sixteenth century, as a response to Calvinism, and deepened in the seventeenth century as a response to Jansenism within the Church herself. Raised to the rank of “double of the first class, with octave” by Pius XI in 1928 (but cut back among the first Bugnini reforms, in the 1950s) — it was a further response to the twentieth century.

It can be taken, strangely enough, as a response to “niceness” — to a niceness which maintains outward forms of charity as a mask of etiquette, yet inwardly consigns huge sections of mankind to inexorable damnation.

In the First Vespers we find this extraordinary line of Christ’s, via Saint Luke, cast as antiphon at the Magnificat: Ignem veni mittere in terram, et quid volo, nisi ut accendatur? …

Which is to say, “I am come to cast fire on the Earth, and what will I, but that it be kindled?”

True love is not nice. It gets up each morning with the world on fire. It must save people.


A note from another correspondent, learned Perfesser Smith from the old Commentariat, is so good and so apt that I will simply quote it as the means to further contemplation:

“If most people are nice, does being Christian then mean to be extra nice? Do we conceive the supernatural as the natural souped up? More of the same?

“Wasn’t this de Lubac’s point: that we think of nature as self-contained and the supernatural as over-and-above; whereas man, as created and fallen, in fact straddles both? That we think we can be naturally complete, and then, as a sort of reward for achieving this, God will add the supernatural dimension? Whereas, in truth, any ‘natural completion’ is only ever relative to the terms of this world and without reference to the next; and seen in the light of man’s true end, such ‘natural completion’ is not to be viewed as a mere stage on the way, but as actually inimical to the achievement of our true end. The ‘nice’ person is a gnostic at heart who would, if not explicitly, then technically and by default, regard the part as the whole, and so distort his relation to both the part and the whole.”