Essays in Idleness


Line items

On the off chance gentle reader has forgotten, the corporal works of mercy are: 1. To feed the hungry. 2. To give drink to the thirsty. 3. To clothe the naked. 4. To harbour the harbourless. 5. To visit the sick. 6. To ransom the captive. 7. To bury the dead.

Better yet, there are also seven spiritual works of mercy: 1. To instruct the ignorant. 2. To counsel the doubtful. 3. To admonish sinners. 4. To bear wrongs patiently. 5. To forgive offences willingly. 6. To comfort the afflicted. 7. To pray for the living and the dead.

If I am not mistaken (and how could that be?) even Methodists, and Presbyterians, and Lutherans, and Anglikaaners, and Greekies and Ruskies and Syriacs and Copts, and the whole Christian rest, buy into all this. They may not do their lists in sevens, but I don’t think there is one item on either list that is controversial, or ever has been. Note, should one be of the literate inclination, that each item is exquisitely Biblical. (Which means one may always look it up.)

Prudential considerations sometimes arise. A work of mercy could cease to be so if the foreseeable consequence were evil. But think such situations through, in a direct and personal, not abstract or “social” way, and the result will be a sharper understanding.

Let it be further added that each item on each list is a general heading, for mnemonic purposes. Not one is limited to a single act; each covers instead a range of related acts, and some may fall into more than one category. Cuteness and cleverness are not required.

The word “mercy” is much abused these days, by two groups at least. One is non-Christians, who may have their own ideas about mercy, that may or may not look coherent, and if apparently so, may or may not rest upon reasonable premisses. (“I feel” has never been an argument.) And the other is poorly catechized Christians, including quite a few priests and bishops I think, who have only the vaguest idea of what Christ taught; or what anyone else ever taught, for that matter.

To most, these days in North (and probably also South) America, and Europe too, God help us, “mercy” is now presented as some syrupy, faux-empathetic, smileyface posture of approval towards a short list of visible ethnic and “gender” minorities, “the underclass,” miscellaneous fornicators, other commissioners of mortal sins, and suspected or convicted criminals (with the exception of Catholic clergy). The spiritual works of mercy are unknown; the corporal ones are a checklist for the Welfare State. Everything is for someone else to take care of, as charity never begins at home.

A woman like, for instance, the late Dorothy Day (mentioned in passing by the pope recently), in addition to being somewhat left of centre, was in the habit of performing these works of mercy, herself. That, and her extreme “social conservatism” — on which she could be verbally aggressive — is what marks her as a genuine Catholic, and I think possibly a saint.

There was a time, O Gentle Reader, when Catholics alike of left and right were agreed on basic Church teachings, and attended together, in the same parishes, the same Tridentine Latin Mass. Among whom, on the average Sunday, only a minority felt justified to approach the rail for Communion.

Perhaps it is hard to believe today: but there was a time when even liberal Catholics were, more or less, Catholic.

There is no point to this post. Or rather, I made fourteen unoriginal points in my first two ’grafs. Please go back not only to read them, but to memorize them, if you haven’t already. And yes, there will be a test!

Nota bene: these are not lists of things the government should be doing. Someone who says they are, is lying. (Be careful with such people, they may be animated by demons.) These are lists of things that all Christians should do — voluntarily! And we really need to earn a pass, because the weather is so much better in Heaven.


Three years have now passed since I began this antiblogue, in the spirit of ironical defiance, and as an essay in creative self-contradiction, with a quixotic declaration of war: a voice on the Internet in opposition to the spirit and style of the Internet, raising the standard of a bellicose Idleness. (See my previous notes for this Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels: here and here.)

Three hundred days, plus or minus, have passed since, on a kind of spiritual dare, I undertook to post more or less daily, in the tradition of Addison and Steele. Gentle reader may judge whether this was a good idea. As Doctor Johnson said, “A man who writes … thinks himself wiser or wittier than the rest of mankind; he supposes that he can instruct or amuse them, and the publick to whom he appeals, must, after all, be the judges of his pretensions.” (Judging from receipts through PayPal, it is thumbs down.)

Anniversaries provide an opportunity to reflect on constants; to make what would not otherwise be topical, current again. The Church, in her wisdom, arranged her memorials in a garland to encircle the year. In private lives, recollections are made of births, signal events, and demises. More and more, like the Church Calendar, I find my own daybook marked with the deaths: of family, good friends, and my heroes through the centuries. …

“Promoted to Glory,” as the Salvation Army terms its obituary list; raised to rank in Saint Michael’s armies, as I earnestly hope and pray. But down here on Earth we footsoldiers slog through the mud of a battle whose outcome always looks doubtful, some of us sunk deeper than the waist. It is a trench warfare that feels as if it will go on forever.

Saint Michael, passing overhead, sounds the bugle. Keep fighting, keep moving, do not break ranks. Ascend, ascend, upon the citadel of the Enemy.

My grandfather’s diaries often come to mind (I have them up here in the High Doganate): he at the bottom of Vimy Ridge, in a moment of sobriety, early in April, 1917; and “Jerry” at the top. (The Kaiser; Cardinal Kasper; whoever.) The task is simply to reverse these positions, a matter merely of dashing up the hill, under intense and steady hellfire. Yet sometimes the simplest operations may appear to be impossibly difficult, as in this case. It can be done, however, as grandpa and his illustrious (Canadian!) comrades were about to show.

There is oddly little emotion in his diary. It was just another day, facing death. If you make it, grand; and if they cut you down on your way up, hey. The view is anyway better in Eternity, and Glory is finally not of this world.


The prayer to Saint Michael, Archangel, which surely every Catholic has magnetized on his fridge, could be read narrowly as a call of desperation. The content is ancient, but the form rather new, dating only from the 1880s, when Pope Leo XIII published a much longer version of it as an act of Exorcism, in the Roman Missal. Then it was shortened, and ordered to be said after all Low Masses. It was a prayer specifically for the freedom of the Church, whose temporal sovereignty had been stripped away, country by country; finally even in the Papal States of Italy, depriving the Holy See of a very necessary independence from the routinely anti-Catholic, secular powers.

That issue was technically resolved, by the delineation of the Vatican “city state” in 1929. Pope Pius XI retained the prayer in its position, however, “repurposing” by turning it outward — as a prayer from and for all Christians, especially those enslaved under totalitarian regimes (and particularly in Russia). It is beyond this our prayer for a struggle everywhere on this planet, against seemingly insuperable worldly powers in the service of “the other side.” The words, after all, say what the words say.

From various memoirs, it is apparent that Pope Leo composed the prayer in the course of a vision. After celebrating a Mass, he was found staring. His vision was of devils invading the Church herself, and of Satan boasting that they were now inside. Leo was pushed or carried into another room, where he suddenly seized a pen, and wrote down the words very quickly.

In 1964, Pope Paul VI had the old papal order suppressed, as if the prayer were now dated and could be set aside. In 1994, Pope John Paul II publicly revived and recommended it, realizing that the prayer was still appropriate to our circumstances (in the extreme), and would always be so while the world lasted. By the use of the Tridentine rite of 1962, this shameful interlude may be skipped over; and once again, in churches around the world like my own, we are saying this prayer after each Low Mass, as we will do with perhaps some extra “attitude,” this morning.

Gentle reader, pray for me, in my little trench, and I for you in yours. Know that it is not a prayer of desperation, but an intimation of immortal Victory:

Sancte Michaël Archangele,
defende nos in proelio;
contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium.
Imperet illi Deus,
supplices deprecamur: tuque,
Princeps militiae caelestis,
Satanam aliosque spiritus malignos,
qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo,
divina virtute in infernum detrude.


Let me be clear on this, gentle reader: when I say “whitewash” I am not referring to the cricketing term from South Asia. I do not mean “whitewash” as an Americans would say “sweep” — in the sense of “winning every match in the series.” (Or, “game” as the Americans say, who call batsmen “batters,” and bowlers “pitchers,” and who knows what else?) Nothing of this kind do I mean, patient reader; no metaphorical use at all. When I say “whitewash” I mean it literally. I know the word “literally” is abused in the media, and by everyone whose speech is formed there; but I mean “literally” literally here. And don’t play the innocent with me. For surely you know what I really mean by “whitewash,” don’t you? … I mean, slaked lime and chalk!

Not the citrus “lime” (that is also delicious both raw and in many culinary applications), but the inorganic slaked lime — the builders’ lime, the pickling lime, calcium hydroxide. Or, in saturated solution, limewater, or “milk of lime.” I want to avoid any kind of ambiguity.

And quite frankly, it is not something to which I have ever been opposed.

As a child in Lahore, I was physically addicted to it. I would run my finger down a freshly whitewashed wall, then lick my finger. It was delicious. Sometimes I would put my tongue directly to the wall. Told, more than once by my mother, that this was a disgusting habit, I did in time give it up. But first, sinful child that I was, I’d do it when she wasn’t looking.

Many children do this, truth be told. It is because they aren’t fed enough pickles. So that where whitewash isn’t commonly used, you will find them ingesting mortar or plaster. Or sniffing through the household cleansers for what they crave. In Asia, they may graduate to betel (slaked lime in the mixture, with the nut, and the leaves), though I warn against this myself, for it can interfere with tobacco smoking, and stain teeth and mouth a Dracula red. Better to stick with the hookah.

I have no idea what the nutritionists say (or rather I do, but on principle, ignore them) — slaked lime is obviously an important constituent in a well-balanced diet. And of course it has its various agricultural and environmental uses, as an inexpensive alkali.

It was my understanding (also, when a child, self-apprenticed to the gardener at Nedous Hotel in Lahore), that this explains the Subcontinental practice of whitewashing the lower trunks of trees (with a smart red band at the top). It keeps the boring insects off; it helps the birds spot the ones who didn’t get the message; it protects the exposed bark from the scalding sun; it helps prevent collisions with elephants at night. Muncie, as this gardener was named, gave me twenty more reasons to paint a tree trunk white, but I seem to have forgotten the rest.

Often we forget the reasons. Yet we should carry on all the same. It is important to follow traditions blindly.

Nothing so discourages ticks and fleas, beetles and grubs — without killing everything else in the bargain. Nothing fixes an over-acid soil like a bag of slaked lime. And by the neurotics of “climate change,” be it noted, that slaked lime scrubs carbon dioxide from water. Keep dumping it in your California, Olympic-length swimming pools, and all your fears of global warming will, eventually, abate.

But there is something about slaked lime with chalk, that appeals most to the young gourmand. They go together like peanut butter and strawberry jam. How vividly I remember!

Visually, too, there is a delicious effect when this chalk white is employed in buildings. It cannot be faked by other ingredients, which make the surface look sticky, like paint. Here is instead a mysterious dry powdery white with the transparency of a watercolour pigment, yet the covering opacity, when layered, of a “Chinese white” (made from zinc). Ivory whites, and other bone whites, are what we look for, instinctively, in line, tile, and skeletal structure — equally free of that unpleasant oiliness. But in extended flat or rolling surfaces, the heart is lifted by this fine chalk mist, over greys and browns; or as the purifier of a broad range of greens and yellows.

For interior walls, however, I strongly recommend hard plaster, applied with trowels, by skilled human hands. The texture allows depth, as a skin; and over time, with successive scrubbings, the patina of a plain, hard plaster deepens more and more. The eye rests upon, then reads it, like a mural that has faded almost away.

Interior light plays upon such walls, and the sunlight through open doors and windows is in love with them, and combines by infinitely complex reflexion to pick out every beauty in the colourings of grained wood and fabric, bringing to the stillness of the room, a dance. No paint can reproduce this effect, and no, no latex paint either, off which the light only bounces like a ball.

If we are going to recover Christendom, we must not be lazy. Among the myriad other tasks, we must put our minds to the uses of slaked lime.

Blood moon

If the third in the current tetrad of lunar eclipses happens, as predicted, it is my own firm prediction that the world will not end. And this, even though I am fully aware that the Moon is near perigee, and therefore “super.”

Why am I so confident? It is a form of theological reasoning on which I rely. It goes like this. We know not the day nor the hour of His Coming (see Bible). But we do know the day and the hour of the eclipse.

The same argument applies to all Bible-based end-of-world predictions. I have seen some impressively sophisticated reckonings. But if the calculators have it right, they are able to know the day and the hour. Whereas, they cannot know. It follows, they are wrong, every time.

Often, common sense is useful in these matters. I suspect it applies to more than we think, in the realm of the cosmological sciences. (Note that I’ve put the Bible aside, for the moment.)

This, notwithstanding a point was reached, in the development of physics, around the time of Planck and Einstein, or a little earlier, when algebra ceased to be the auxiliary to language, and language became instead the auxiliary to algebra. Until finally, language was ruled out of court. We began to make counter-intuitive discoveries; and now that’s all we make.

A crass example would be the speed of light. Granted, it will go no faster. But send two beams of light in opposite directions. Are the photons not parting from each other at twice the speed of light? And the answer is, of course, Yes and No. From our frame of reference, all is well: each has sped off only at the speed of light. And should two photons whiz past each other in opposite directions, from the PoV of either photon, the one whizzing past is going only at the speed of light. And anywhere you go in the universe, nothing is receding, nor approaching, faster than the speed of light. So: No, nothing is exceeding the speed of light. And Yes, the distance between the photons is growing at twice the speed of light. All clear?

That was a simple example: Relativity is much easier than Quantum Theory. Alas, once we are in Planck-land, we are in Planck sea. The photon itself is incomprehensible. At the sub-atomic scale, everything is incomprehensible; or in so far as it can be understood, quite absurd. What follows after Planck gets worse and worse, as we explore with math what we cannot observe, and pile one inference on another.

Not only is it very difficult to quantify or measure anything about a sub-atomic particle, such as its location; but supposing we have done that, every other measurement becomes vague. Nail, say, the momentum instead, and the location becomes vague, &c. We are up a tree with the lesser primates, dining on the “uncertainty principle.”

We might long to return to the basic ideas of “classical” physics (things like: inertia, motion, force, acceleration, kinetic energy, work) and yet, the closer we investigate each of these things, the more obscure it becomes. The math gets farther and farther from the language; the capacity to describe and visualize is lost; and we are confronted with multiple propositions that, while apparently true in themselves, are counter-intuitive in relation to each other.

Common sense requires some part of the universe to hold still. But the universe is entirely in motion. Something truly still could not be in the universe. The whole universe would be whizzing by at once. It is, to my mind, in our apprehension of stillness — of “the still point in the moving world,” both immanent and transcendent — that we partake of the Divine. And this, even on the most mundane level: that “idleness” or “stasis” within the mysterious workings of our “common sense.”

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, goes the old Carthusian motto. “The Cross is steady while the world is turning.” This could be read as a nice eleventh-century anticipation of Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics; except, it goes beyond them. It is also the defeat of physics, or rather, the frontier beyond which we pass into philosophy, or metaphysics.

A true science would, I think, proceed in a different way, than our speculative science, by recognizing the frontiers. It would not claim to understand, actually or potentially, what is beyond our understanding. It would insist on recursions to common sense. It would pause and explore each counter-intuitive proposition, waiting for language to catch up; rather in the Scholastic manner. It would acknowledge that inner intuitive stillness. It would speak less, and contemplate more, in the course of which it would exhibit the humility that modern, godless science has discarded.

The greatest scientists have been like this. So many have in fact been monks. Their advances came seldom from algebra but in the old-fashioned way: by thinking through apparent contradictions. One thinks, and one thinks, with the human equipment, endowed by God; then suddenly — eureka! — one finds sense. For a moment, one “sees” it. The extraordinary math then follows.

Let me tell gentle reader something from Common Sense. We cannot “feel our way into” sub-atomic particles, because they are just numbers to us. We could not make sense of our own everyday environment if all we had were numbers. Were we superb mental computers, we might be able to predict, sometimes, what would happen next, yet it would not make sense. We’d be surrounded by the “counter-intuitive,” and beaten by reality again and again. We wouldn’t last five minutes, as computers.

For a quantified universe is a reduction, even a misrepresentation of the real one. Flesh and embodiment is required; a “materialism” different in kind from the desiccated, “scientific materialism” of the prevailing scientistic ideology — a materialism that is much too abstract. For our sensory perceptions, and capacities of mind, are not limited to numbers. They give us many dimensions at once. They show the way through apparent contradictions. They make sense of things — the sense that “pure empirical science,” and only experimental methods, through jungles of mere data, can never make.

They allow us to imagine. They provide a form of revelation.


Now, returning to the blood moon, the whole thing is readily predictable. For any location, we know when it begins and ends. Having pung this file, I will go up on the roof of my building to watch it. Even if the clouds get in the way, I will not doubt what is going on above. Indeed, I feel more confident than I do most evenings that the world is not going to end, tonight.

But had it been some other night, and I looked up and saw a blood moon — a lunar eclipse that had not been predicted — I would be less cocky.

In a dream once, I noticed a thin crescent moon of a size to arc across half the sky. Also, I noticed it was growing. In my dream logic, sound in its kind, this struck me as a serious indication of trouble to come. Another point, of which I took note: that I was levitating. Upon waking, I was in some confusion whether I was going to the moon, or the moon was coming to me.

Upon further waking, I became convinced that this was a moot point.

On a revivalist note

The important thing, in this time of darkness for the Catholic Church in the West, is to keep her on life support, to keep her breathing and ingesting some trickle of nutrition. She seems in some sense comatose for the moment, and without defence. Ours is to defend her.

Every monastic activity is precious; every liturgical expression, uncontaminated by the heresies of “modernism,” is valuable towards this end. It is important to realize that, even in Europe and America, there remain actual millions of faithful Catholics, often abused or abandoned by their own bishops, and by the vicious bureaucracies that surround them, advancing their various demonic “agendas.” In the face of which we must persist — as the laity did, along with faithful priests, through the Arian challenge of the fourth century; through other periods when the Church herself seemed falling into the hands of the Enemy, and the City of God was once again being reduced to the Desolate City. Yet she was not dying, as in each case we later came to know. She rose, again and again, the servant of Christ Unkillable.

To persist, as it were, to “keep on trucking” as we used to say, to “not let the bastards drive you out of the Church,” may be the best we can do some days, when the gloom descends; when, as in the last few days, we have had to hear our own Holy Father playing to the gallery not only of non-Catholics, but of anti-Catholics; pivoting from us to them; flattering our very persecutors — commending the progressive politicians in Washington; or in New York, applauding an international elite that unambiguously imposes contraception, abortion, and “gender bending,” as conditions of “foreign aid”; or everywhere he goes, blathering about “climate change,” to the mass media audience, while saving the Gospel to be preached privately. Preaching, thus, only to the converted; and to each audience, only what they want to hear.

Our obedience is to the Magisterium. If the authentic teaching of the Church is neglected, confused, or even contradicted, at Rome, it is our duty to cry out. It is not our duty to be mealy-mouthed about it. And should it cost us to do so, then let us pay, such a tiny mite, compared with the Sacrifice of Our Lord.

I know it is impolitic to say such things; I read many well-intended, and even highly regarded commentators, spending more, and more, and more of their time, making excuses for this man. It is considered poor etiquette, indeed, for a Catholic to criticize the pope. Yet many times in history it was a duty. I think it is worth reading, once again, the memo the late Neil McCaffrey wrote to the papal cheerleaders of the 1970s, maintaining their discreet silence, or making their cumbersome excuses, when Pope Paul VI was making his mistakes. That pope, surrounded and increasingly isolated by very questionable advisers, created the mess to which this pope is returning. His “good intentions” were of no avail; evil counsellors prevailed because their opponents would not speak up. Instead they focused on silencing each other — not in obedience to the Magisterium, but to one frail man. (See here.)

This distancing from the faithful was not the way of Saint John Paul II, nor of beloved Benedict XVI, whose courageous works of restoration — after the catastrophes of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies — are now being dismantled and undermined. How painful to see the extraordinary work of John Paul, in reconstructing the teaching on the family, now being undone. He went out in the world, as pastor, to preach the Gospel, in very clear terms; how sadly he is missed. How sadly we miss the deep and genuine learning of Benedict, in this new era of reckless and fatuous sound bites.

Or read, if you will, the memorable speech to the American politicians by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the 3rd of February, 1994. (Here.) She was not shy in what she proclaimed; reminding these posturing “Christians,” among many other things they were trying to forget, that the very first to proclaim Christ on this Earth was an unborn baby.

Part of our task is to keep the words “Jesus Christ” alive, not only in our hearts but on our lips, when our own shepherd thinks it prudent to avoid saying the name in “mixed company.” Part must be refusing to take advantage of, for instance, the new regime for annulments, which strikes at the heart of the Christian family. Part is to revert to the ancient and perennial forms of prayer, and to their music, in the face of endless ugly tampering “in the Spirit of Vatican II.” Most important is to seek holiness, ourselves, regardless of the world’s opinions — to make every expression of the true Christian life open, joyful, and uncompromising.

Leave schism to the schismatics: this is no time to abandon Sancta Mater Ecclesia — our Holy Mother Church — to the Doctor Mengeles of Washington and New York. Indeed we need converts, the best we can find, to fill our empty spaces and to help us turn once again the evangelical mission outwards. To the sincerely faithful Christians of all denominations we must make our appeal, for help in a struggle for Christianity itself; to the sincerely faithful of all religions, who recognize the Divine in this world, in goodness and in truth and in beauty, we have something to say, and something to show. For Christ is still with us, come what may.

Of course, it is not in our power to convert a single soul, whether outside the Church, or within. But lead them to Christ, and He will do it. (And pray for the pope, our fellow sinner, toughly in love and not in hatred.)

To the surprise of everyone, except the faithful, Holy Mother Church will revive. The destruction that has been done to her — so much of that destruction from within — will be made good. The ruins will be built over, and the chalice replenished again. For against the Truth, no falsehood can long stand. If God is with us, who can be against us?

In the Gospel of Saint Luke, chapter 19, we read of the Pharisees, demanding that Christ rebuke His too noisy disciples. To whom Our Lord replied:

“I say to you, that if these shall hold their peace, the stones will cry out.”

We are those stones, and what we cry out must be the Gloria.

Our Lady of Ransom

In all the heat of “events,” I neglected yesterday to insert a prayer to Our Lady of Ransom, whose feast it was (in the Tridentine rite). Retentive gentle reader may recall my post last 28th January, about the Order of Mercedarians which survives, and which I should like to see fully restored to its original purposes.

This work began in the (blessed) thirteenth century, and coalesced into a Catholic Order around an apparition of Our Lady. It was, too, a response to conditions very much like those of today: Christians under siege in what we now call the Middle East. The task of the manly monks was to “ransom” them, to redeem and to free them — putting their own lives and freedom on the line, like United States Marines.

Cash ransom was raised and paid in some instances, prisoner exchanges arranged in others, direct military action where it promised to work. In my understanding, much of the early success of the Order depended upon “shock and awe.” That is to say, the Mohammedans were shocked and awed that Christians would go to such lengths on behalf of their enslaved co-religionists, as to offer themselves up instead, when necessary; and do many other selfless things, that projected off their own familiar moral charts.

Years and years ago, in the time between the Wars of 1967 and 1973, a Palestinian in Hebron (under Israeli occupation) told me, quite privately, how impressed many Muslims were by the strange behaviour of Israeli, as typically other Western forces — by the lengths they would go to recover a prisoner, or to protect the lives of non-combatants, usually involving huge personal risk. They knew that, for instance, the Israelis would exchange dozens of Arab prisoners of war, even convicted terrorists, for “just one Jew.”

This man was not ripe for conversion. Instead, his hope was that, some day, Muslim Palestinian children would be like Israeli Jewish children — their lives worth more than pieces on a chess board. (How much blood under the bridge, since then!)

And yet, in the Christian view, the ransom of prisoners is only a metaphor, done as an embodiment of the Commandments lest they become too “abstract” — mere theory or ideal, having little to do with “pastoral practice.” It is the ransoming of the soul, including one’s own soul, from the clutches of the Evil One, to which this metaphor refers.

Deus, qui per gloriosissimam Filii tui Matrem, ad liberandos Christi fideles a potestate paganorum, nova Ecclesiam tuam prole amplificare dignatus es.

“O God, by means of the most glorious Mother of your Son, you were pleased to give new children to your Church for the deliverance of Christ’s faithful from the power of the heathen; grant, we pray you, that we who love and honour her as the foundress of so great a work may, by her merits and prayers, be ourselves delivered from all sin and from the bondage of the evil one.”

Saint Peter Nolasco, pray for us. Saint Raymund of Pennafort, pray for us.

Our Lady of Ransom, pray for us.

O Christ, help us.

The hunting of snark

A valued correspondent has accused me, this morning, of descending into snarkiness — something, she says, she is capable of herself, and thus well able to identify. It was, arguably, a wise move on my part, to commit this error — an echo, perhaps, of felix culpa — for the consequence is that she now prays for me, the more assiduously. She did ask me to explain myself, however. Is something unpleasant happening in my life?

Thinking on this, I soon found an answer. The bitter truth is that, although quite busy earning my living by inefficient means, I have spent much time reading the News. This is the snare, or the snark, of worldliness.

It can be no secret that I am utterly appalled by most of what has been coming down from Rome; and lately it has been coming thicker and faster, so that I think we may even have surpassed the flow rate, circa 1969. Indeed, the “snark” may be a by-product of my attempts to avoid addressing this directly. It is, if you will, an indirect response.

News from outside the Church is similarly discouraging. I am more and more aghast with the catastrophic mistakes made by our secular rulers, in what they imagine to be “progressive” causes; opening their own floodgates of one sort or another; taking actions that cannot be reversed, or rather, will take decades or centuries to reverse — compared to the brief moment of applause they enjoy, at the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, as those Gates of Hell are opened.

Both in Church and world, we are watching disintegration. Of course I care more for the Church, which is why my outrage is greater when, in a time of moral and spiritual crisis, she directs her attention to prescribing public policy rubbish, and her pope campaigns, as if for political office.

Whether the pope does or does not know how much damage he is doing — through e.g. his new provisions for quick and easy “Catholic divorce” — is not the question for me. I am not the judge of his soul. I, as every Catholic, must pray for our Holy Father, one way or another. We cannot possibly want him to confuse and desolate the faithful, any more than to dishonour twenty centuries of painful work, defending the indissolubility of marriage.

Yet this is just one of many fronts on which the Church is currently retreating, “in practice,” from positions held in doctrine and in fact, received directly from Our Lord Christ Jesus — who did not waste His own time on Earth, blathering about the trending “hot topics.”


It happens I was reading, in the News, a certain Bishop Shyrokoradiuk’s comments on the invasion of Ukraine, through such portals as her Western-supported, “modernizing” university faculties:

“Sin is wicked, but when recognized as sin, man can repent, seek and receive redemption. But if the worldview fails to recognize sin for what it is, or worse, celebrates the sin as some form of grotesque virtue, repentance is not sought and redemption is lost.”

He was, I think, paraphrasing Chesterton’s explanation, and finally the Church’s explanation, of why heresy is worse than sin. And therefore to be the more diligently avoided. For a sin is just a sin — one nasty little blemish or scar — until through heresy it metastasizes.

It seems to me we are all Ukrainians now: being invaded simultaneously from both East and West. The more conventional and ultimately manageable force comes with bombs and missiles, tanks, aeroplanes, &c. While inconvenient, and often annoying, there are steps that can be taken to repel such an enemy, who preys on material weakness; and time will anyway work decay upon any external tyrant.

The more insidious threat is always to the morals and spirit of a people. This sort of invader needn’t come armed. He needn’t even kill anybody in a forthright, visible way. He is after their souls. His chief weapon is Pride. He promises “liberation.” He cannot be repelled by any known technological means. It is a threat that we from the West have been exporting.


The valued correspondent, mentioned above, now writes (from Massachusetts):

“There is nothing in the News that is even remotely worth reading: it is all full of silly people doing and saying silly things. There is absolutely nothing you can do about any of it and it will raise your blood pressure. Needlessly.

“Instead breathe the air. Enjoy the turn toward autumn. Watch the birds. Look at the clouds. Feel the breeze. Wonder if the leaves are going to actually turn this year or if they are instead just going to drop because they are too dry and crunchy, too tired and too dusty.

“This afternoon I am taking a break from my reading — am not sure what the correct word is here: orgy or marathon of my Three Teresas — Avila, Lisieux, and Calcutta. Talk about feeling inadequate by comparison. Even the ‘little way’ of love in all things is too hard and demanding for someone of my frail spiritual constitution. It’s just so much easier (and at least momentarily satisfying) to smack someone. …

“So, please cheer up. If the world is a mess — so much the better. It will blow up quicker and then we can start on Purgatory all the sooner. Because no matter what I actually deserve, I believe God will at least give me some credit for trying and so perhaps I will have a toehold in Purgatory, rather than a whole body in Hell.”

Plain speaking

How charming Pope Francis sounds when he is trying to speak in English — dropping half the consonants and lisping half the vowels. I could listen to him for hours. Well, minutes at least.

I think he should make a recording of the text of Laudato Si’, especially for rightwing English-speaking people. In English. For I suddenly realize the whole text would be taken differently, pronounced in this way. On the one hand, it would sound so gentle. On the other, it would be easier to ignore the more charged political passages, as the musings of this sweet old man from Buenos Aires. Of course he does not mean anything like what appears on the page in our Anglo black and white. What was I thinking?

If a pope must resort to public speaking — and I see no reason why he should — it would, I suppose, be better if he stuck strictly to ecclesiastical Latin. That way, everyone would have an equal opportunity to misunderstand him. Or alternatively, we could all learn Latin, a language in which a wide range of post-modern abstractions and ambiguities are impossible to express.

The whole concept of “climate change” would, for instance, have to be abandoned. For the moment the mutatio were added, the situation would become clear. We have a pleonasm. The weather is something that is always changing. That is not something that needs to be explained. Short, medium, or long term, it is bound to continue changing. Men change, too, but to attribute changes in the weather to men? Anyone can see that is absurd!

No, it is the weather that is changing, and most likely we will change with it, dressing more lightly if it gets warmer. Perhaps take the woollies off. Or put them back on if it gets colder. The idea that if you do something, say put on a coat, the temperature outside will get colder, is quite mad. Instead, it will get warmer — but only inside the coat. Try it and see!

A clima is anyway a mathematical division of the earth. Let us not mix terms. Even in an extended usage, it is no use here. Sure, the weather may be more temperate at another location; in another clima perhaps. It often is. And true, it gets colder as you go north, warmer as you go south, in the balance of things. Or if you go up a mountain: cooler, I would say, in the Alps. And in some places it rains more than in others. But we’ve known that, for a long time; we needn’t get excited about it. Very well, it is all upside down in Argentina. But Argentina is far away. We’re still right side up, here.

As to sea levels: they rise and fall every day. We’re ready for that, don’t panic. And should the high tides begin to creep up, at some rate like half an inch a year, we’ll cope with it. I promise you, no one will drown. It’s not like a ship turning over.

There’s a woman from Naples down the hall from me. She may not speak Latin, but she does speak Italian, which is the next best thing. Age confers wisdom, sometimes, and she is among the wisest I know.

She looks at all these blue boxes, and brown boxes, and green boxes, and yellow boxes, with mysterious symbols on them; and knows the world is going mad. All of this, for garbage!

A gentleman from the city came to show how to sort her garbage; how you put some in this box, some in that, some in the other.

She did her best to humour him. Since he was speaking nonsense in English, she replied with nonsense in Italian — a little parody, or perhaps a translation. But with a strong Neapolitan accent, and plenty of slang, in case he caught on. She was patient with the strange little man, hearing out everything he said with at least a pretense of curiosity. Eventually, he went away.

Later, in her perfect English, she told me how these things should be done.

Back home in Naples, everything was simpler. If you lived in a flat, and you had some garbage, you’d know what to do. You’d toss it in the corridor, like everyone else does. That isn’t very hard to remember.

“It is the landlord’s problem,” she explained.

“Let the landlord deal with it. … We shouldn’t interfere with other people’s business.”

Towards increased understanding

According to another of these young ladies of my acquaintance, after listening to one of my diatribes against democracy, “You have to work with the system you have.” (We were taking a smoking break, outside a media studio.)

I admit this sounds refreshingly tautological. For if you were not working with the system you have, you would be working with a system you have not, and then where would you be? Surely, in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Yet, for generations of leftists, liberals, and progressives, this has proved the more effective political strategy — to subvert the system, systematically, by means both fair and foul; indeed by any method that works, and foul works quicker than fair — until it comes to resemble the system in their dreams.

Or more specifically, their nightmares — their “reforms” of the system itself having produced, fairly consistently, the opposite of what they had anticipated. (Look at the middle of any large American city, long governed by progressive Democrats: Detroit, for instance; or Baltimore.) And so they are fated to continue subverting, and subverting; and our society fated to become ever more “complex.”

My diatribe was (and remains) directed to accommodating this background “fact” — using that word as I like to use others, in their “traditional” meanings. In this case an adaptation into English of the Latin term factum: a past participle from facere, “to do,” used as a substantive. It refers not to some isolated statistic, or other particle of selective empirical data, but to something that has occurred, has happened, has been accomplished, is true and real, and by inference, complete.

Only in the Enlightenment was it split down, as it were, into sub-molecular pieces; and only in post-modernity has Humpty Dumpty been put together again in a new and unusual order — so that facts, today, are not the same as facts, yesterday. We now have “facts” that, while lies, are “politically correct.”

Nature has this power of re-assembling herself, that is the bane of post-modern life. She refuses to remain disassembled. She snaps back together, in the course of which — to be as vulgar as possible — she bites one in the ass. She may be able to handle “complexity,” but men cannot. Men only think they can, when they are drugged by their own vanity; in the end, more simply, we fail and we die. And that is a fact: then, now, and in the foreseeable future.

To my mind, our task on the side of Reaction, is not to propose alternative complex remedies, but to unpack and discard the “solutions” we have already tried, in schemes to override human nature; because they don’t work, and can’t. I cannot think how this unpacking could be done without increasing human freedom; without letting the atoms of our atomized society shift for themselves. We could do this politically, by gradually walking back almost everything that has required legislation over the last century or more; or we can wait for nature to do it for us, suddenly.

But democracy, as we can surely see by now, ain’t gonna unpack nothin’. The politician who proposes to disassemble not nature, but our administrative machine, is not going to get past the primaries. Paradoxically, he will be accused, then quickly convicted, of being “unrealistic,” and “negative.” The “realistic” and “positive” types will be proposing new ways to improve the machine, for the benefit of targeted political consumers. He will have new policies, to fix the old policies — the ones that “didn’t work.”

An article recently, in WaPo or somewhere, noted that the two dominant political parties in those Natted States Merica seemed not to be referring to the same country. Republicans and Democrats were addressing not only different audiences, but different topics. Each considered the other to be out to lunch, when I think, really, both are. Though I must add that I think the Democrats have been out to lunch longer.

The writer was biased to the Democrats, as one could expect, but in the journalistic manner, he was pretending to be “objective.” Here is the nugget I scratched down:

“Economic and family issues such as college affordability, the minimum wage, executive compensation, early child care and paid sick days that have formed the foundation of the Clinton and Sanders campaigns have largely been absent in the Republican discussion.”

Yairs. … Each of these items being (to my mind) none of any government’s business. Each purposefully invading the sphere of private, voluntary, human interaction, to impose the Procrustean “one size fits all.” And we all vote on the size that Procrustes has selected. The size that fits us best, as consumers.

Once we understand that the government is like a very large business (leaving aside questions of profitability), we also see that the modern voter makes choices like a shopper. He is looking for deals, and brands, and is demonstrably swayed by “coolness” factors through venal mass advertising.

The message that, “You must cease to behave as a consumer,” let alone Christ’s, “Give up all you have and follow me,” is not going to sell; at least, not to consumers. Conversion happens; but it does not sell.

I’m not saying give up, to democracy enthusiasts like that young lady, with her commendably rightwing, anti-bureaucatic, and socially conservative, pro-life views. I’m just saying, understand that you are going to lose.

Mass in the mass

There really are no good options, should one wish to celebrate the Feast of Saint Matthew Evangelist with a few hundred thousand other people in the middle of Havana. It will have to be in the Plaza de la Revolución, under a ten-storey monument to Che Guevara, with the dreadful, “Orwellian,” Ministry of the Interior to back it up. To say nothing of Batista’s surviving thirty-storey monument to that wildly overrated hack, José Martí.

I have seen this square only in photographs, and understand from the Wikipaedians that it is the thirty-first largest public square in the world, a mere one-sixth the size of Tiananmen, and about even with Sükhbaatar Square in Ulan Bator; or Red Square in Moscow — which looked a little small for its pretensions when I saw it. Say, four cricket fields at most. One million identically rapturous people will fit in such an area, to be sure; but push that to two, and there will be terrible queues for the lavatory.

The idea of the vast public square, for rallies, is endemic to revolutionary regimes, and as a Tory and pundit of some architectural cognizance, I condemn the whole genre. I should be careful here, however (I should often be more careful), for I would not wish my criticism to extend to such large public spaces as Sanam Luang in Bangkok, or Charles Square in Prague, which antecede “post-modern history” commendably, and which were in their nature never meant for speechifying, but instead as marketplace or fairground.

As ever, technology — in this case the bullhorn and its descendants — is capable, for a modest price, of transforming one thing into another.


I know a lady who, while working in “public affairs” on behalf of a large, soulless, multinational corporation, did something clever. The eco types were planning a big demonstration for the extensive car park in front of the building where the shareholders would be meeting. Learning of this, she sent her office staff to rent all the bullhorns from all the Rent-a-Bullhorn shops for a hundred miles around. This made for a fairly silent demonstration.

A brilliant girl, she also cordoned the shareholders with an all-female security detail, so that when the thugs from Greenpeace came to push their way in, they could all begin crying, “I’m a woman and you’re hurting me!” This mantra was sustained for the duration of the encounter — leaving the frustrated CBC film crew with no footage whatever that could be used for the usual leftist propaganda purposes on the evening news.

So that by end of day the score was: Corporate Scum 2, Commie Scum 0.

It was a small victory, but it made me happy.


Should one have a Mass for more people than will fit in Saint Peter’s Basilica? Or even Saint Peter’s Square? (Which is less than one-third the size of that Revolution Square in Havana.)

This is a question no one ever seems to ask — defining “no one” to exclude me and some of my gentle readers. For it appears to me the very idea of the Sacrifice of the Mass is compromised, once concessions are made to the post-modern phenomena of “mass man.”

I should specify that this question has been occurring to me for a long time, and is not intended as a way of sniping at any Roman pontiff in particular. Unless, perhaps, at Blessed Paul VI, whose “modernizations” of the papacy included massive travelling road shows (arguably inspired by innovations of the two popes preceding).

The idea of a pope “progressing” in regalia through crowds, distributing his blessings — on precedents established by Jesus Christ Himself — has never, so to say, “bothered” me. This is indeed among the few kinds of “progress” by which I can be pleased.

It is rather the aping of the great totalitarian public rallies that strikes me as somehow accessible to doubt. For in my (cruelly limited) sense of the mode and mission of Holy Church, we are not competing with the Fidels and Ches, the Adolfs and others, and should never appear to be offering an alternative “brand.” For our religion is different in kind from what the world offers.

Perhaps my own, by now well-documented, objection to the Novus Ordo — along with the rest of the “Spirit of Vatican II” — comes down to this observation. For the nature of our bugninified congregational Responses is, speaking with one mechanical voice. There is a kindergarten quality about it; teacher speaks and the children reply in a way not musical but, in its very conception, monotonous and cacophanous. It is ugly, and worse, it was intended to be ugly. It changes the nature of the individual’s participation in the Mass, when he is made one atom in a mass. It overwrites, or overshouts, the hidden, prayerful responses.

The harmony of music was alluded to, for I do not wish in any way to endorse some notion of “rugged individualism,” or “personality,” or “spontaneity” — please, no, never. Rather I am trying awkwardly to relate a distinction between the Body of Christ, and a political body or statistical “community” of Catholic Christians. By subtle but continuous increments, we are addressed not as living souls, but as a demographic.

I might even suggest that the decline of the family, within even the Catholic fold, has been abetted within the liturgical offices by this atomization, this reduction, of the Body of Christ to “the people of God.” For we are not “the people,” but persons in our own right, which includes our relations to each other; and the Mystery of our Union is inadequately represented by a huge faceless crowd, gathered to cheer Our Leader.

Christ does not pander

The book, God or Nothing, by Cardinal Sarah (of Guinea, the brilliant Ratzinger appointment who remains Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in the Holy See) is cast like several of our beloved Pope Emeritus, as a book-length interview. (It is available, here.) This is a format I prefer to “ghost-written” tomes, of which I have a very low opinion — formed while knocking out half a dozen of them for ready cash, myself. Nicholas Diat served as interlocuter, in this case, and structured the interviews to elicit, among other things, a wonderful autobiographical account of Robert Sarah’s upbringing, that casts light on the explosion of Christian and Catholic faith throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Sarah is very eloquent in French, with a clarity that carries well into English translation. Much of what he says is, in its modesty and freedom from affectation, quite moving. He is a reminder that we have in our hierarchy, today, cardinals of the stature of Burke, Mueller, Pell, Napier; and bishops in reserve, of e.g. the stature of Salvatore Cordileone.

I do not believe God will ever leave us without such men, to see us through times like the present; these “ecclesiastical Churchills” as a friend calls them; men of true learning, and discernment, and courage, whose faith is unshakable. As opposed to the charlatans, and demagogues; the sell-outs, and panderers; the comfortable careerists who keep their heads down in the nosh when duty commands them to make a bold stand in defence of Christ’s own teaching. In the face of so many of these, we still have men who, as Cardinal Sarah likes to put it, “will not yield one millimetre.”

Here is what the hacks call the “money quote,” from God or Nothing, which has been resounding if not from the pulpits, then through the subterranean vaults of the Catholic Church, in the approach to October’s Family Synod:

“The idea of putting Magisterial teaching in a beautiful display case while separating it from pastoral practice, which then could evolve along with circumstances, fashions, and passions, is a sort of heresy, a dangerous schizophrenic pathology. I therefore solemnly state that the Church in Africa is staunchly opposed to any rebellion against the teaching of Jesus and of the Magisterium. …

“The Church of Africa is committed in the name of the Lord Jesus to keeping unchanged the teaching of God and of the Church.”

This is the spirit precisely opposite to our flippant, contemporary, “Who am I to judge?” posturing. Sarah is no sycophant to the Zeitgeist, and as gentle reader may guess from the tone of my prose this morning, I find that spirit exhilarating. He is a man actually accustomed to calling deep to deep; he is not another twittering, sound-biting, circus clown for the mass media.

On Wednesday, Cardinal Sarah will deliver the keynote address at the “World Meeting of Families” in Philadelphia, with a talk entitled, “The Light of the Family in the Dark World.” Dig it out when it appears. In the meantime, from a preparatory interview with a (nominally) Catholic periodical, here is something for desiccated Americans and Europeans to discover:

“Africa is part of God’s plan from the beginning. Just look at Revelation. When God chose to establish a covenant with man, he began in Egypt. It was Africa that saved Jesus: Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s edict against male children and against Jesus himself. And, again, it was an African, Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus carry his cross on Calvary.

“So, from the beginning, God wanted to involve Africa in the plan of salvation of the world. Africa certainly has many problems, but the Church in Africa is characterized by a vitality and dynamism that is unknown in the West today. In secularized Europe and in all the so-called developed countries, wealth has perverted men to such an extent that they do not think in any other way than to satisfy their physical and carnal desires. They only count on money and material success, and if they are not successful, they fall into depression and sadness.

“In Africa, poverty is still very strong in many of her countries, yet Africans exude happiness and joy. God is their wealth and their hope. Obviously, they also aim to combat economic misery, but not to enter into spiritual poverty of those who have driven God out of their lives.

“In this deep anthropological crisis, Africa, despite her poverty, and indeed because of this poverty, which is the poverty of Christ in the Gospel, can give to the Church her most precious treasure: fidelity to God and to the Gospel, her love of life and the family.”

How often we find Christ in the last place we look.

On despair

Desolation is permitted, or rather tolerated, to some degree, but despair is a spiritual evil, and therefore, gentle reader is advised not to go there. I would not give you advice I haven’t given myself, at this or some other point in my life, O Sir or Madam. For hand-wringing on the state of our society, our governments, our civilization, our hierarchy and our Church, extends beyond my inbox. Even without the daily bombardment of links to one outrage or another, I would be inclined to feel sometimes the opposite of upbeat about what is going down.

This does not mean I think God has abandoned us; that the Holy Spirit is not still at work; or that Christ has changed His mind about the Second Coming. (There are days when I wish He would hurry up.) It does not even mean I suspect Holy Church is defectible. Popes and bishops, priests, even humble parishioners, have made a mess in the past, and it often takes some time to clean up after them. But on one issue even Walter Cardinal Kasper is right: the doctrines of the Church are not going to change. Humans may try their best, but this is Christ’s Church, and ultimately the boss sets things right again.


As ever, we can be confused by words, and the distinction between desolation and despair is worth glossing. The first is passive, the second active. To be sinful, despair must be voluntary, too. It necessarily involves an intellectual decision — that there is no hope of salvation for oneself, or beyond oneself for anyone else. It goes beyond discouragement to surrender: to giving up on the good, the true, the beautiful, and therefore on their Lord. In a sense it is more atheist than atheism, though it can be equally jaunty. We have decided that there is no point to human life, and everything that gave it point is a lie.

On the other hand, the despairing might decide that since they are here, anyway, and pleasure is pleasure however sick, they might as well impose a little meaning. Such has been the triumph of Nominalism, in our age, that this view has become academically respectable.

The common or garden atheist of today is not decisive but clueless. Despair belongs to the truly hardened atheist, the “classic” atheist if you will. Blasphemy comes into this — the real blasphemy we have lost the ability to perform, because we are so flighty and shallow, and all we know how to do is swear. “Atheism lite” does not really deny God, nor even the efficacy of supernatural agents. It merely avoids thinking about such things. It is a form of waywardness, that ought to be punished, but it is neither intellectually nor spiritually impressive. It is the heavier sort of atheism that leads to such carnage as mass murder.

Stalin, we all know, started out a seminarian, in his native Georgia. From a glib, Obama Democrat point of view, we might attribute the murder of countless millions to the fact that he was unable to pay his tuition at the Tiflis seminary when his scholarship ran out, and was therefore expelled. (This may not be true, but it is commonly accepted.) And that is why post-secondary education should be free of charge. …

On closer examination we find that he had become a serious atheist by his sophomore year; that he’d been trouble since a child in the shadow of a violent alcoholic father, who finally abandoned him and his mother, having tired of beating them. Curiously, the little boy Joseph was marked from birth by a form of cloven foot, and by age seven with smallpox scars. (I add this only by way of, woo! woo!) He was also extremely bright, well-organized, and as it turned out, a very talented assassin and bank robber — just the kind of capable young man Lenin was recruiting. And as we know, the lad went far.

I mention him as the perfect model, a poster boy for spiritual despair. But as I say, cheerful and jaunty about it; not neurotic at all. The person who does not believe there is Heaven will hardly believe there is Hell, either. This is the opposite of Christian freedom, but it is a kind of freedom nonetheless — the very kind our children are now consciously taught in our evil public schools. Cue here John Lennon’s song, “Imagine,” which offers a more modern, sentimentalized version of the Stalinist outlook on life.

And I raise that little cliché back from the dead again, to suggest how tricky despair must be. Often it presents itself as happyface. The Devil also smiles when he gets his kicks, and Stalin could find the humour in an excruciating death. He’d read the accounts from the dungeons of the Lubyanka, giggling away and snorting. Let no one say Stalin lacked a sense of humour; only the nature of it is controversial. And like a Harvard graduate, he was more droll than hyperbolic. The strange thing is, he wasn’t actually insane: totally compos mentis when he needed to be, which was in every moment of his waking life. As hyper-alert as a little sparrow.

This is the sort of thing that we don’t understand today: that you don’t have to be insane to be evil. In fact, it helps if you are not. For the insane tend to be self-defeating, mistaking hawks for handsaws and so forth.

Moreover, despair of salvation can be seen to take many forms, once we realize it is not a “mental illness.” The gentlemen who flew the jetliners into the Twin Towers were, technically speaking, not atheists but religious fanatics. This is certainly the conventional view, and plausible enough prima facie. And yet I don’t believe it for a moment, never did, and won’t. Our investigation of their background, and behaviour prior to the act, showed they didn’t believe in anything. And if a deathwish does not herald despair, what does?

We have little understanding of our Muslim terrorist enemies, and it would perhaps be helpful if we turned to sincerely religious Muslims to learn about what is missing in them. For they are interested exclusively in the violent elements of the Islamic tradition, and have little time for the liturgical and moral propaedeutics. Or the eschatological teaching either, except insofar as it is extremely violent. For a reason even they could not provide, they just like to destroy things.

Yet they are fairly easy to understand, once we acknowledge there is human immortality to deal with; and Hell; and the Devil.

I doubt even one of them is banking on the seventy-two virgins — which is incidentally not in the Koran but the Hadiths. Their motivation is much more like that of the fin de siècle and Edwardian anarchist bombers, who cared little for human life, whether others’ or their own. This is something to watch for at every ideological extreme.

Despair, properly understood, is not insane. Nor is it much like a conventional depression, which is the opposite of wilful.

A person who is lost still hopes to be found.

The instruction from on high is to continue hoping.

And should we not, ourselves, try to be at least as cheerful as the despairing?

Doing usury backwards

One wonders, sometimes, if a full exposition of the crime of Usury could be composed, in which it is shown that holding interest rates artificially low is the equal though opposite evil to keeping them artificially high. I am not the economic genius who could pull this off, but I descry a little light through the other side of that door — the loose hinge side, as it were.

At the moment, state-authorized central banks throughout the developed world are holding interest rates at or near zero. In Japan, they’ve been doing this for about a quarter of a century now, and have achieved something like economic stasis, as the population ages. This might be called the policy of, “steady as she sinks.”

The principles of economics are, like the principles of physics, so profoundly simple that we feel some need to complicate them. Supply and demand tend to equilibrium; we see the operation of this in “price signals” — on the black markets, even when the white ones have been closed. It is the law of the jungle — a sort of justice in its kind, but having little to do with human nature and morality. (Indeed, those Nominalist economists tend to go badly wrong, from the moment they attribute reason to human nature.)

Good and evil are, for us, to be considered on another plane; and at the intersection with the plane of natural cause and effect, we do not always let the market have its way. We do not always let gravity have its way, either, but the sane will acknowledge that it is constantly in play, and thus must come into every prudential calculation. They think it best to keep it on our side.

Demagogic politicians try to confuse our understanding by mixing terms. Even our pope does this, when he holds humans morally accountable for the operation of supply and demand; one might more reasonably hold God responsible. This leads to conspiracy theories, and the demonization of behaviour that is merely self-defensive, as when we see the missile coming, and duck. Fortunately, he may be safely ignored, when discussing topics on which he is, shall we say, not well informed.

But presidents and prime ministers cannot be ignored, having as they do the material power to direct government intervention on a huge scale, without the slightest understanding of the consequences of their actions — often on the principle that, “because I am virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale.”

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, in this instance, “because I have borrowed a lot of money, there shall be no more lending above prime,” when they have pinned prime at zero.

As everyone should immediately see, this is good news for borrowers, bad news for lenders. It is especially bad for mere savers — that large proportion of the population with little skill or ambition as investors, who only want to keep for themselves and their families what they have earned. For the value of what they’ve earned trickles away, while the value of debts including those they never contracted rises before them, like an impassable mountain range, trillions of dollars high. The very fact they have savings makes them, furthermore, a target for governments that are essentially bankrupt — in both the fiscal and the moral dimensions.

Keynes couldn’t explain this — a remarkable economist, in the sense that everything he taught has proved false — but there is still inflation, albeit presently low by the standards of the century since the Great War began. With the current steep fall not only of oil, but of other commodity prices, the inflation rate may also decline, briefly below zero; but if we are to continue eating and driving cars, this will eventually be “corrected.” (The puddling of fiat currency guarantees that.)

And curiously, it is only the fear of what will come next, in a quickly deteriorating economic and social environment, that discourages some, while encouraging others, to spend everything they have, on the reasoning, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Reckless consumer spending would at least restore the GDP growth rates, through the short interval before the whole system collapses. And that is what the savvier politicians tell us to do — to spend and spend, to borrow more and spend, while worshipping at the shrine of a Money God they long ago nationalized.

Partly as a consequence of this, but more from their “natural” low-class incontinence, half the population lives paycheque to paycheque, and take no thought of the morrow, in an area where Prudence (which is a virtue, even though like Justice it is “merely” a cardinal and not a theological virtue) requires them to take thought and behave like fully-grown men. But the childless, especially, have no cause to serve, beyond their own pleasure, and having no serious belief in the afterlife, either, will get their jollies while they can. They now constitute a huge voting block for every progressive party.

And lo, our economy has been systematically rebuilt around the interests of just such people: the borrowers and not the lenders; the speculators and not the investors; the childless and not the child burdened; the self-serving and not the self-sufficient. I do not see any coincidence in this.

We are told, in the standard encyclopaedic sources, that the crime of Usury originally pertained only to the charging of interest, and that the word today refers specifically to interest charges so far above “prime” as to merit the terms “excessive” or “abusive.” In other words, Usury is presented as a judgement call on the numbers; as a technicality of the whimsical sort that lets you fine or gaol whomever you want should you take a dislike to Wall Street.

I am not scholar enough to challenge this simplistic view, but from the little I’ve read in the mediaeval sources, I believe the teaching was more knowing than that. The suggestion often made, that our mediaeval ancestors had no notion of supply and demand, and therefore of investment and return, seems to me a palpable, shrieking lie. It is like saying they were unaware of gravity, because they lived before Newton. And yet even the rudest peasants — outside Christendom as well as within — were aware they could not flutter their arms and lift, like the birds.

All religious traditions of which I am aware inveigh against Usury, and the image of the loan shark exists in all cultures, taking advantage of those in real need. I do mean to include not only Muslims and Jews, but Jains, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists and Confucians; possibly Animists, too.

It would take time and learning I do not have, to review the innumerable decisions in everything from Byzantine councils to Scholastic academies, touching on interest charges. Yet I’ve seen none specifically aimed at discouraging trade and investment. Rather, all assume personal loans, and what we would now call “consumer financing.” They were anyway written long before the Florentines had invented double-entry ledgers, modern trade finance, and merchant banking.

Should we go the distance back to famous passages in Matthew and Luke, wherein Jesus speaks of usurious behaviour, we find that He took investment and return for granted. In the Parable of the Talents, He seems even to wink at moderate bank interest, while implying that as an investment strategy, it is pretty lame. What He condemns instead is something closer to, “reaping what you did not sow.”

And this can be achieved also at rates of interest held unnaturally low.