Essays in Idleness


Flying by

It is interesting, in the latest photos from Pluto, taken obliquely towards horizons, to see that the dwarf planet has an atmosphere. We are beginning to get an incomplete idea, of what exotic ices and powders that atmosphere might consist — but are still surprised to find it there at all. And not only there, bound round Pluto for sixty miles up, but articulated in more than a dozen distinct layers. Even from a camera distance of seven thousand miles, the “rugged mountains and sweeping plains” (I quote from press releases) first catch our attention. The shadowing of a dim and distant sun picks shapes out of this Plutonian landscape, presenting a new beauty we never saw before.

Good Lord, we are witnessing sunset on Pluto. We are tasting a new food for the imagination, at this extraordinary supper hour. But in addition to this, we take our first hints that there is weather — motion — in this strange world, thousands of millions of miles away. Changing, day by day.

In the thin angle of the solar lighting, we have what appear to be great cliffs of dunes, and creeping in and out of their shadows, a dense ground haze. Though I cannot quite follow their “jargonian” meander (a word once invented by my little boy), the engineers at NASA seem to have deduced the rudiments of a hydrological cycle, that might be taken as a parody of Earth’s. Though in Pluto’s case, it is not made from water; even so, there is snow and steam.

All these things that we didn’t need to know, but are good to know, notwithstanding. This is a new way to understand the scale of our cosmos, in which we have sailed such a short way. It took nearly a decade for New Horizons to reach Pluto from Earth, travelling faster than anything we humans had ever previously launched. Were it pointed in the right direction, the little vehicle would take another hundred thousand years to reach Proxima Centauri — the nearest of stars to Sister Sun. And meanwhile, what that instrument box may find beyond Pluto in the Kuiper Belt cannot be guessed, though it is on our very doorstep.

By comparison, I find that the current obsession with locating planets, similar in size and in orbit to our Earth, shrinks down the universe “exponentially.” It is our latest essay in scientistic reductionism. The exercise is like spotting a random pinpoint, through powerful binoculars, very far away. Yes, we might calculate, the tick is about the diameter of our own head, give or take a beachball. It does not follow that it can talk.

The size and orbit of Pluto we knew; and little else. We figured out not exactly how to get there, but how to fly quickly by — with instruments blinking in the soundless void. Everything they have detected has come as a surprise; mostly big surprises. And so it has been with each other body in the Solar System that we have whipped by. For the universe, like Earth, will always hold surprises.

This stands to theological reason. God does not do Creation by halves.

A puzzle

Some time ago, I was in a progressive, hippiesque bookstore. This was not my fault, I hasten to add. I go into bookstores only because I can’t help myself. It is some kind of mania or addiction. I am in no way responsible for my actions on such occasions. In youth, when they had them, I would go even into Maoist bookstores, where they sold copies of the Little Red Book, the Peking Review, and things of that nature. It was a bookstore, you see; I had to go in. And so today, I go even into cool, “alternative” bookstores. Compulsively.

A radio was playing.

Often radios are playing, among other obnoxious noises in the heart of the city. I like to think I’d never play one myself, though perhaps that is spiritual pride. Perhaps being forced to listen to rot is an opportunity for spiritual growth, as any other kind of suffering. Or maybe it will provide a topic for an Idlepost.

Some gentleman from Brazil (I think) was chattering about “the poor.” (Must have been the CBC.)

It seems they have poor people in that country. The guest in question — caressed by the host as a famously smart person, with an advanced degree in economics from somewhere; or perhaps somewhere else — was telling us how much better the poor are than rich, or even middle class people. Consider, gentle reader, how very inspiring: for they help one another, and appreciate things more, and have innumerable other virtues. How they’re not greedy and selfish, like the rich.

Fair enough: I have noticed the same in Parkdale, and other comparatively poor places I have visited. They are very thoughtful and compassionate. The poor, for instance, are able to bum cigarettes from each other in Parkdale. Not so in rich neighbourhoods such as Rosedale or Forest Hill, where sometimes I think no one ever bums cigarettes. They’re too proud there. Or maybe in those rich neighbourhoods they don’t even smoke, they are so full of themselves. No room to inhale. Not like the poor, who breathe in and out all the day long.

In the old days, I would hear things like this about, for instance, the Chinese peasants — not on the radio but from articles in the Peking Review. They might be poor, but they weren’t bad like rich people, who tended to be the running dogs of the Yankee Imperialists.

So as we see, there is some moral advantage in living below statistical sea level, with the fish. You don’t have to worry so much about appearances. Keeping up with the Joneses (or the Silvas, or the Oliveiros) is, after all, not morally improving. And if you can’t keep up with them, anyway, why not stop trying? Instead, you can become morally pure, and good, like the other poor people.

It was quite marvellous how virtuous these poor people were, in their tin-roof hovels in the slums of São Paulo. Surely anyone would want to live there, and have such wonderful neighbours. There can’t be any crime in such districts; not when all the people are so impoverished and good. They couldn’t commit a white-collar crime if they wanted to. The saints must be packed into the favelas at a thousand to the acre. This primary point was clinched again and again.

Only in point two was absurdity fully achieved, however. The gentleman — apparently some liberation theologian — thought the poor people should get more money. On what he declared to be Christian principles, he wanted “political action.” He wanted to put down the mighty from their seat, and to exalt the humble and meek. He wasn’t shy about this. Since Providence had failed to achieve this result, it was now up to him and other community organizers. A redistribution of wealth must proceed, on an extraordinary scale — from the rich to the poor. The rich must be made poorer, and the poor made richer, or else we will never have “equality.”

The radio host did not ask where this gentleman got the idea that Christ demands class equality. (A pity, for I was curious myself.) Nor ask where He demands property seizures, for that matter. Not even that notorious tax collector, Saint Matthew, presents such views for our consideration. Clearly this man has a direct line to God, with access to information not previously available. Or else, he has something wrong. (But who am I to judge?)

Alternatively, there could be one of those “interpreter” problems, that seems to afflict Pope Francis whenever he is flying. Might the same people who constantly mistranslate him from Spanish and Italian into English, have mistranslated the Scriptures into Spanish and Portuguese? Might that be why Our Lord comes across as some kind of Peronist or Commie? Let us charitably suppose it is a simple misunderstanding.

The gentleman had just finished telling us how the poor were holy, and the rich not. Better than that, he’d told us how the superior behaviour of the poor was the product of their inferior wealth and station. On the gentleman’s own argument, his transfer scheme must therefore make the rich holier, and the poor more depraved.

Do they teach logic in Latin America? (I know they don’t teach it up here.) Or do they just have some arbitrary “preferential option for the rich”?

For surely, if poverty is the reliable source of virtue, we should be at pains to keep the poor in their place. Not for our benefit, of course, but for theirs, we should keep them downtrodden, marginalized, subjugated, exploited, destitute, and often short of cash. We can assure their salvation by promoting poverty and malnutrition, and carefully maintaining their status as victims.

And as for the rich, who cares? They have their reward.

So here is my question: Why does this man want to hurt the poor? Why put obstacles in their path to Heaven? Why does he want to improve redemption prospects only for the rich? What kind of Christian is he?

On the other hand

One thing I seem to have in common with His Holiness is the ability to produce statements on politics, economics, and society that read like messages from another planet. I am sorry to say it is not always the same other planet, at least in my case, but before criticizing “Bergoglio” — as we call him when he is pronouncing on topics beyond his formal remit — I am moved to glance in my shaving mirror. My excuse, that I upload these Idleposts not under the impression that I am the Pope, can take me only so far.

Custody of the mouth and fingers, in addition to the eyes, ears, elbows, knees, and toes, should be encouraged in all Catholics, not to say all men; and perhaps in a few women, too.

As to the question, “Is the Pope Catholic?” — recently posed on the (electronic) cover of Newsweek magazine — a more personal question might be, “Am I?”

I try (hard) to avoid “preaching heresy,” but there is more to life than the sins of commission. The sins of omission are also recalled, increasingly to mind, as I grow older; the current but also life-long catalogue of opportunities missed. The “reckless” side of classic Roman behaviour — which we read about in the Lives of the Saints — is something that has seldom appealed to me. I do not like to put myself in the way of danger, or sometimes even of heavy work. To his credit, I think this appeals to Bergoglio, more.

To my credit, I am perhaps more shy to act when I don’t know what I’m doing. But this can be explained by my slow brain. Those who, as I, have participated in debates, or even in quick barroom stichomythia, may have experienced something like this problem. One thinks of the perfect thing to do, or say, about ten minutes after it would have been useful. Meanwhile, one’s only resemblance to the Doctor Angelic is to have looked superficially like a dumb ox; when not a mad cow.

Gentle reader will appreciate that today’s post is a substitution. I was in the throes of another longer composition, touching upon just what I most fear in everything from the new “fast-track annulment” process, to the preps for the Family Synod, to what a certain Bishop of Rome (as he often calls himself) might say, in his extempore manner, during his impending visit to Cuba and USA. Then relegated the whole thing to the (electronic) shredder.

Christ will come to save us at some point; indeed has Already Come; and the more painful (personal) question is whether we want to be saved. I am not even clear on that, sometimes, in moments of wrath, or toiling presumptuously among the other deadly sins.

Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, pray for us.

Many pockes on many houses

Several of my correspondents wrote yesterday to express surprise that I had changed my opinion du président russe Vladimir Poutine. (Perhaps he is more digestible in French; many things are.) I note this only as an example of the difficulty of writing on politics with precision. For I said no such thing. I wrote that my views had changed on Ukraine, and implied that I had been dispossessed of certain illusions about Ukrainian nationalists. But my views on this crass, ex-Soviet, power politician and thug, have not changed, so far as I recall, since I first caught sight of him, rising within the Yeltsin kleptocracy.

They were clinched when I learnt, about 1999, that he has a pathological aversion to cats. It was the last straw. He cannot charm me.

I am aware there are quite a few “conservatives” today who admire this creature for his support of the Russian Orthodox Church, and opposition to public homosexuality, plus the odd feint towards a market economy.

Even Stalin spoke well of the Orthodox Church when, thanks to the invasion of Soviet Russia by Nazi Germany, he needed fewer enemies. The words, “Holy Mother Russia” are quick to utter and very cheap. I have nothing to add to what God might say about the condition of Putin’s soul, but I can see the political machinations. Whether “sincerely” or “insincerely” (not my call), he is doing what innumerable tyrants have done through the history of Christendom: using Church to advance interests of State. He presides, currently, as he probably understands, over a society that is morally vitiated by long generations of Communist rule, and all the corruption that has since followed. He would like Russians to drink less, work harder, and generate more babies. But this is for reasons of State.

Even members of the Communist Chinese elite, we learn from some reports, semi-publicly express their admiration for Christianity, and its role in building the industrious society of the West. To this way of thinking, it is a source or moral strength, that contributes to public order; a useful instrument of social control. Well isn’t that just peachy keen.

The problem for them, as for all previous tyrants acting in “enlightened self interest,” is how to control this religion; in particular, how to prevent the Roman Church — by far the largest and most international of nameable denominations without interruption through the last twenty centuries — from acting independently of the State.

That is why Red China has gone to the trouble of creating a parallel “national catholic church” that is virulently anti-Roman — while actively suppressing manifestations of the Thing itself. (A move from Henry VIII’s old playbook.) If Chinese people want to become obedient little Christians, as it is now evident many do, fine and well. But their beloved Party leaders do not want them to go so far as to think that obedience to Christ can take priority over obedience to their beloved Party leaders.

In many ways the systems of government in America, Europe, Russia, and China, have been converging. Each offers “freedom of religion” to those who agree not to act on it. In the United States, for instance, Catholics remain entirely free to practice their religion so long as it does not encroach in any way on public life. Leaders who are obviously not Christian (the name Obama comes to mind, along with the rest of the usual suspects, to which we can now add Donald Trump), will even give lip service to the religion, when they find some doctrine which seems, in isolation, to champion some part of their own agendas. So it is and will be in the other centres of power in this world, outside the Dar al-Islam and, perhaps, certain ultra-ultra neighbourhoods in Israel.

What they will not allow is for the Church to operate freely. She must be bound by State regulation, and she must never challenge the claims of the State. She is to take her place alongside the Rotary Club and the Jaycees.

Moreover, this has been the modern arrangement, for about five centuries now — even in countries that have been, outwardly, overwhelmingly Catholic. It is the fundamental difference between our background political order — institutionalized in the Treaties of Westphalia — and the Western mediaeval order. Westphalia put the nation state formally above God.

In the Middle Ages, while local Princes were always trying to appropriate the local Church — chiefly by means of controlling appointments to her hierarchy — they could not always succeed. Even when they did succeed, they felt bound to acknowledge a higher jurisdiction; and they manoeuvred to avoid conflict with the Holy See. By this they acknowledged, at least in words and gestures, the Kingship of Christ, even while trying to subvert the very teachings of Our Lord to their own rather worldly purposes. But by this acknowledgement their power was limited. They could push only so far. They could not manoeuvre onto the moral high ground against the Church, so long as the identity of the Church was understood. Even when short of cash or soldiers, the Church retained the power of Anathema.

A Christian politics acknowledges that there is an authority higher than the political, to which all political authority must kneel. It survives, through invincible belief and conscience, in a sense of responsibility for the fate of all souls under the Prince’s protection. So far as he believes, himself, he fears going to Hell; and at many moments there were remarkable conversions. Faith, to this extent, governs the government; and the products of Faith will be apparent — visible, and often audible — everywhere one turns. That is what I hold out for, in politics; that and nothing less.

Everything short of that ought to be condemned, and I condemn Putin because I cannot doubt he is in unscrupulous pursuit of worldly power — employing the methods of his old employers.

The notion, among the same “conservatives,” that this man should be encouraged to do the West’s own “dirty work” in Syria, is exceptionally naive. Iran is his client; Assad is Iran’s; and so is Hezbollah. He is doing precisely what the (confused and incompetent) Obama thinks he is doing, by favouring Iran: siding with one monster against another. This never ends well.

It is sometimes necessary to tolerate a lesser evil; it is never necessary to encourage one. “Conservatives,” to my mind, should apply this to themselves, too: neither Putin nor Assad will ever be your friend.

Nothing done from profoundly impure motives ever ends well. I have this myself on the highest authority.


My piece yesterday was entitled, “Retractions,” a typical act of mischief on my part. It was on two fronts. The first act of mischief was guessing the modern English reader would take a retraction to mean a recantation, a withdrawal, a revocation. Whereas, a thirteenth-century man like myself, with no patience for sixteenth-century innovations, uses the word in the old way, to mean a recollection or review. (This evolution of meaning was typical of the Reformation, incidentally, and thus typically modern: a both/and proposition being changed to an either/or.)

That is certainly what Saint Augustine meant by his Retractationes. He might be correcting some mistakes in old works, but he was hardly taking them back.

The second act of (no doubt childish) mischief followed from this wordplay. I was hoping to trick gentle reader’s attention with the suggestion that I would be “retracting” — in the sense of disowning — something I had written myself. Only to have him discover, no such luck.

Yet when I review old Idleposts I am, in fact, sometimes uneasy.

Just now I quietly deleted another couple of them, that were on the topic of Ukraine. A mere eighteen months after the events that occasioned them, I see that I was comprehensively misinformed by many of the sources on which I then relied. Not, necessarily, intentionally misinformed; but I have since learnt many things that did not “fit” with the media’s emotionally loaded coverage — which, in the main, I had taken to be at least partly true. And while I see that I was clever enough to drop the right qualifiers into place, I was wrong to fall back into my old cold-warrior mode, as it was not appropriate to the situation; though right to worry on behalf of Ukraine’s Eastern-rite Catholics, whom I now suspect were themselves conned by very cynical and violent nationalist agitators, whom the Western powers should never have engaged with, nor encouraged in the John Kerry way.

We, even I — who should know better from my experience “inside the machine” — must never trust media accounts of anything. Even when true, they are damnably selective, and even when the agenda is unknown to the journalist, he is likely to be serving it. Large events are not covered at all, because they are inexplicable to him. Conversely, things that never happened are reported because they seem plausible in the liberal media mindset. Always, today, there is emotional engagement in the presentation of news — whether from Left or Right. And what is true in political journalism has also become true in coverage of all other topics, especially “science.”

In a previous generation there were foreign correspondents who stayed in one place long enough to acquire some idea of what was going on there. Similarly, “special” correspondents would have some knowledge of their particular subjects. Both would enjoy some intellectual independence from the central editorial apparat. This is no longer the case — anywhere, so far as I can see. All coverage is now “professionally” guided from the studios of a mass-market entertainment industry, whose interest is in unified “messaging.” The “army of Davids” in Twitter and Facebook are just rings around this Saturn.

The contemporary journalist is voyeur to a “crisis.” He has been flown in, with a crew. He does not arrive knowing the way from the airport. He is taken for a fool by every interested party he encounters, and manipulated accordingly. He is like a rich hunter on safari who must employ beaters to drive a few game animals into his way. He has limited time, before his audience has lost interest in the latest crisis, and he is himself air-freighted to the next one. The result is reportage not quite so good as no information at all.


Does gentle reader know, for instance, that three-quarters of the “Syrian migrants” currently arriving in Europe are unaccompanied young men, an unknown proportion of whom did not come from Syria? The cameras are focused, whenever possible, on the minority of women and children, who present a more heart-rending picture; it is only in the occasional long shot that one may see the actual mix. Many, and possibly most of these refugees are well dressed and technologized. They have the money to get themselves to their intended destinations.

The foreground pictures offer many misrepresentations. We do not learn that, for instance, most of the boats were launched not from Syria but from Turkey, to make short distance to Greek islands offshore. Those aboard include genuine refugees — but they had already escaped the Syrian conflict. We must search diligently to discover that the “migrants” are extremely unwelcome in other Arab and Muslim countries; that anyway, it is to the rich offerings of Europe that most aspire. Effective charity, from the European side, positively requires better information.

Gradually, of course, the truth emerges; or gradually it does not emerge. A few of these young men will be potentially violent Islamists; perhaps not more than one in twenty. If the proportion is so low, this would work out to only a few thousand, entering Europe each month. Happily, the great majority are not psychopathic; but also, not quite what they claim. And meanwhile Europe’s will to detain and investigate each claimant in turn is sapped from the outset by emotional lies. Aeroplane passengers are searched meticulously, but these have barged en masse right through. Those who show intelligent scepticism towards them are presented in the media as advocates for racism and torture.

We have a (Christian) duty to help the helpless, as and when they appear. This is a question of conscience that is non-negotiable. Even the ne’er-do-well we are obliged to pick up from the street or beach; to feed, clothe, and shelter as necessary. But as I hope I made clear in essays last week, we do not have a duty to be taken to the cleaners, or to advertise ourselves as easy marks.

By the combination of universally false, often faked, ignorant, and emotional reporting — including the demonization of the overwhelmed “first responders” at Europe’s frontiers — the media have subverted the whole continent’s ability to think the situation through. In the longer run, they have contributed powerfully to the civil disorder that will result, from the irreconcilable differences between Mohammedan and post-Christian cultures.

Meanwhile the democratic politicians strut for the cameras, each in response to the latest “breaking news.”

Note, I have said nothing about defending Europe’s “Christian heritage.” For Europe is no longer Christian, except a small minority. Paradoxically, by conversion, as well as by the arrival, of Christians from the Middle East, the migration may provide Europe with more Christians over the longer run. I am not playing with the “demography is destiny” argument. Destiny will be destiny: we cannot know what tomorrows will follow after today. We can only know what is likely to follow, from past experience.


Once upon a time, the pagan and increasingly decadent Romans let in great hordes of barbarians from beyond their frontiers — peaceably, and by bureaucratic edict — to actual Roman citizenship. Their thinking was, that with their own birthrate falling, they needed these people to labour and pay taxes; to do the sort of jobs even the poorer Romans no longer wanted to do.

This didn’t work out for them quite as they had planned, however. The barbarians proved too numerous to assimilate, indifferent to the rule of Roman law, loyal to their own quaint customs, and ungrateful for the gifts they had received. All in all, they were inclined to continue acting like barbarians.

Angela Merkel apparently has the same clever idea — hard-working new immigrants to pay for otherwise unsustainable German pension schemes — behind her pose as Europe’s top humanitarian.

Alas, as Saint Augustine suggested, in his City of God, the direction of influence should be the other way. The more civilized should be expanding at the expense of the less civilized, rather than vice versa; God being on the side of sweetness and light, as opposed to bitterness and darkness.


Genuine refugees do not wish to leave their own country. Their first choice would be to stay. They flee, characteristically, for their lives, rather than for better economic opportunities. They’d rather the opportunities came to them. There are plenty of genuine Syrian refugees — millions of them, internally and externally — thanks to the rise of the Daesh, accomplished largely with our own assistance. And the truly desperate cases — which include women, children, and elderly that many of the intrepid young men have left behind — cannot get out.

We have the means to bring safety to the Syrians where they live, and want to live. But as I’ve said, this requires an unambiguously military operation — as most humanitarian missions do, including all in which the disaster has been caused by human delinquency. Verily: the longer it is left, the bigger the disaster, and thus the larger the military force that will be, finally and more or less inevitably, required.

Indeed, it has struck me that all these hordes of strong, healthy young men could be received in Europe on the one condition they be impressed into military service for the relief of their homelands. For surely under European discipline and direction they could be forged into a formidable fighting force, allied with us instead of with our deadliest enemies.

One wonders if this has occurred to anyone else.



A cute game in the modern theology faculties is to play the later Augustine against the earlier Augustine, while demonstrating incomprehension of both. Thus we can extract, like a sorting machine, two “doctrines of grace,” and set one against the other — if we are sufficiently smug.

The man himself, reviewing his own works, towards the end of his life, did not disown his earlier writings. Instead he called attention explicitly to a development in his thinking, between a work published in the year 394, and another in the year 397. It would be more accurate to say that the one work leads to the other. He was consecrated a bishop in the interim, and he strongly hints that the gravity of this election contributed to the development of his thinking. Grace itself then comes into this directly — grace in the explication of grace, I should think — from an “Augustinian point-of-view.”

His Confessions continue to place high on the classical bestseller charts, for the remarkable candour with which they were written (about 398). Among the qualities that make him so breathtakingly “modern” (in the old sense of, Ancients versus Moderns), is that remarkable guilelessness and candour; that Gospel elimination of the ancient Olympian pose (though sometimes done with irony). Augustine is making an assault for the truth, and he is writing for people in like mind: marines or commandos in some sense; people who “live like marines.” We aren’t aloof, can’t afford to be aloof, on the fundamental questions of our being. Too much is at stake, and it is too late in the day.

Either it is my imagination — for I am not a learned man — or there actually is a development of tone, between the earlier and later Augustine, turning on the year 396. He becomes more urgent and more sure. It is as if he were himself crossing that threshold from the Ancient to the Modern: from Christianity as an ancient cult, under attack in all quarters, to what came to be known as Christendom. It is an action of the mind parallel, in some way, to the en toutoi nika of Constantine. (“In this sign will you conquer.”) We are no longer scaling the walls, as it were; we are suddenly inside the fortress.

We are no longer the persecuted, and therefore, we have no choice but to assume the responsibilities of government. This is not a cynical thing, as it must appear to the post-Christian mind, which immediately thinks, “Now it is your turn to persecute.” To the Christian view, it is taking up a burden, one actually thrust upon us — in the void that is opened when the earthly powers crumble away; as they have often done and will do.

The circumstances of Augustine’s life and times explain this adequately. He grasps them himself in The City of God. The ancient, pagan, Roman world is collapsing. His own diocese of Hippo is sliding into the hands of barbarians; in August of the year 410, Rome itself is sacked by Alaric and the Visigoths. (For eight centuries it had been secure.) The book is a treasury of Christian teaching, addressed to the soul of every man. Yet, one might almost say paradoxically, it is also among the greatest political tracts, plainly expressing the way this world is ordered, and should be ordered.

An earthly kingdom whose eyes are fixed on Heaven — the very mediaeval ideal — is prefigured in this work. We cannot be Pelagians; we cannot optimistically assume that, thanks to baptism, all will be well. The condition of the world really is a cause for sadness, and we, who are wounded, like the Samaritan — struck down by the Enemy, and fallen along the road — cannot “fix it” by our own devices. The wounded must care for the wounded; but salvation can come only through Grace.

Our situation today is no different. It remains just the same as Augustine described, as another pagan empire is succumbing to another barbarian conquest. In this midst, we wounded have no choice but to “take charge” — and in the sign of the same Cross. God must be our government, because men will always fail. We will fail, verily, unless we serve that high order; and even then we will fail in the sight of the world. But there is no avoiding our grave responsibility; it cannot be disavowed.

Divine Grace, properly understood even in the most elementary terms, tells us there can be no secular political solution. No man and no mob has the power to impose it. Christ alone has the power, drawn down from the Heaven, bestowed upon us according to our need. Our situation is thus not hopeless. In fact it is extremely hopeful, for those at least who are following their orders.

For then as now there is a war on: a war that the forces of light and goodness are bound, finally, to win. It is a war of the worlds, and the earth is in the middle. We are the wounded soldiers in that war. But every inch of ground we can take from the forces of darkness and evil, is well won for Christ our King. And every inch surrendered will be occupied by the Devil.

This is not a dream; this is how things are; and in this state of war, none of us can pretend to be neutrals. We must choose between the City of God; and the City of Man, falsely promised in the propaganda of the Enemy.

It is to this end, that we must come to a better and better understanding of how things are. This is what Augustine meant by his Retractationes. Not to disavow his former works, but to improve upon them; even to put them back into service for the fight ahead. We cannot fix the world but we can fix our weapons. The war goes on.

The front line passes through every human heart, and we must keep pushing it forward — pushing and pushing to our last breath.

Stained glass

We would argue, my papa and I, about everything; even about stained glass, which was his hobby and not mine. Each enjoyed playing devil’s advocate to the other, whatever position he took up: a form of kitten play. In one of these (invariably affectionate) disputes, we reached towards an important truth about stained glass, not then known to either of us, yet stated with comprehensive precision in e.g. so classic a work as that by Hugh Arnold, entitled, Stained Glass of the Middle Ages in England and France. (Illustrated, not with useless photos, but with the carefully executed coloured plates of Lawrence B. Saint; and first published in the antediluvian year of 1913.)

Stained glass does not work like watercolour, but is parallel in some ways. It cannot accommodate “washes.” The extraordinary effects produced by the (often anonymous) artists of the thirteenth, then fourteenth, then into the fifteenth century, were possible because they actually rejected a technological innovation. When the means were found to paint transparently on clear panes, then fuse that to the glass in the furnace, it was also found that the method produced glib, mediocre, unsatisfying results.

The new methods gave the artist too much freedom. It would give him a life of too much ease. I think here once again of the droll aphorism of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, that: “As some Roman said, debauchery isn’t going into a whorehouse, it is never coming out.”

Instead, the artists, right across Gothic Europe, used paints — “enamelled” into the glass — only to introduce opacities. Features of face, figure, and garment could be drawn or, as it were, “inscribed” onto the flat surfaces in this way: a purely graphic touch, leaving the colour essentially “within” the glass pieces of the mosaic.

This method — together with the conscious and increasingly confident integration of the structural iron bars as divisions within the greater composition, and the commission of elaborate masonry to frame it — raised decorative flourish to high art, dimensionally beyond the glasswork of all previous ages (or any since). Transparent “window painting” would only sap these effects. The craftsmen did not fall for it.

Indeed, they often went backward, as was the case with those iron bars. For after a couple of generations of experiment, with twisting the bars to shape them into an element of the composition, artists across Europe returned to straight. And this not only for structural reasons: for the counterpoint attracted them, of the organic with the geometric. If I am not mistaken (for I think I am alone in saying this), they learnt from the Islamic calligraphers and architects, who combined these two modes with startling genius in their own religious decoration: geometric and organic patterning, in harmonious mutual overlay. For it is a principle of Christianity that we can always learn — from whatever is good, true, and beautiful.

An analogy I found was to postage stamps, where designers fell, and fell hard, for the technical possibilities of colour photo-lithography to replace the older techniques of engraving. It gave them much greater freedom: the freedom to drool oceans of mud. The sharp precision of engraving had instead required great skill; it was extremely unforgiving of mistakes. But it did make possible something that could stand up under magnification to the minutest scrutiny; and in the hands of a master could be extraordinarily beautiful. It was not, as 99 percent of postage stamps now are, the loud squelching mucky rubbish of a pixelated cacophony, with nowhere a sharp edge.

Photography is so often disgusting; art without line is morally impure.

The Sainte-Chapelle, which I mentioned yesterday, is one of the high achievements of the Gothic era, but to begin to understand the Gothic, we must appreciate its range.

My heart was never lifted as it was on the discovery — with my eyes and tears, not through some photograph — of what had been done at Chartres. Something so glorious, so perfect. It is, I still think, the finest building ever erected; its chief competitors being other Gothic cathedrals, abbeys, and shrines, not one of which is a copy of another.

At Chartres, one will find a nobility that is the opposite of the jewelled Aladdin’s cave at Sainte-Chapelle. Broad borders are set around the medallions and pictorial compositions, in the glass itself, and the intentional “gloom” of flat stone further set between the windows, to focus the mind on each element in its turn. Schemes of liturgical colouring vary in the course, so that now a blood red, now a marine blue, now an earth yellow can speak to us in their sequence, and we have in their variety the characters in a huge drama. It is as if all history has been brought before us, and the dimension of time is being anointed — baptized, canonized — and thoroughly expounded. One hundred and seventy-six windows, I believe, if they are counted — made large, thanks to the disposition of the magnificent flying buttresses on the outside — and each one a parable to the Christian life.

Whereas, in Sainte-Chapelle, we trip into a dimension that escapes time, and all the painted light is gathered in an explosive single moment, and the overlaps, for instance of medallions into margins, within the narrow vertical panels — pull the Creation together, in the ring of that Crown of Thorns. It was built to convey the sudden shock of recognition. The suffering of Christ has been transformed in the redemption of our humankind, and what we now see is the splendour of its beauty: the Gloria released from all earthly bonds.

That is the thirteenth century for you: the incredible range, from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, to Sainte-Chapelle, so vastly exceeding what we can now imagine, set in an accomplishment of glass and stone.

Let me explain the moral.

Great art is not a pile-on of effects, but their careful selection to one end. It depends as much or more on what has been excluded. It requires intense discipline of form, and exacting craftsmanship. There is not, and there will never be, an easy way out. There may well be technical innovations that contribute to this craft: such as the flux to melt silica at lower temperatures, making glass more ductile in the craftsman’s hands (the very ancient discovery, that made glass-blowing possible). But there will never be an innovation that obviates the continuity, in apprenticeship, of one generation to another — the “interplay” within human society, not only through space but over time, made possible when men become civilized.

And this creative force is integrative. The studied craft, the necessary science of an art, the very narratives and symbols chosen for depiction — are intimately related. They will be in some sense domesticated, and we will grow in the simple domestic virtues that these arts have embodied in a heightened and more spectacular form.

“Progress,” in the sense of improvement — directly opposed to decadence and degeneration — requires the ingenious coordination of all these things, to ends that are not restless, but enfold, in an interpenetrating stasis; in a stillness passing beyond this world.

And yet in every angle, pregnant with immortal Life.

The development of the art of stained glass, through more than two centuries in the Middle Ages (later twelfth to later fourteenth, in my opinion), is deeply thrilling: consistent gains with nothing of irreplaceable value lost along the way. Though alas, in the end, almost everything can be lost, for nothing in return but dust and ashes, through human depravity.


It was in later life that my father took up stained glass, as a hobby. He had no grand ambitions. He found the pieces of broken glass in his walks; the lead from an art store. He would collect glass fragments beautiful in themselves, and let them suggest to him how they should be used.

He had started as a child with watercolour, and perhaps had doubled back to a mysterious appreciation of patterned colour, transparent to backlighting in a new way. His inspiration was not expressly religious, though he collected photographic slides of religious works of art, and insinuated them into the slide shows he prepared for his industrial design students, as almost an unconscious provocation; for he was not himself religious until the very end of his life. (He merely believed that there is God, who created man to be immortal.)

Just now, I am looking at a small rectangular frame — fifteen inches by nine — in which he constructed the reaching arm of a crab, abstractly patterned. He did this by articulating found pieces of coloured, pharmaceutical bottle glass, red-orange browns with a gem yellow highlight; and textured shards from sliding bathshower panels for a surrounding grisaille. It is a modest small composition, that I have leaned against a window over my sloping work table. In the corner of one’s eye it often seems to move, for there is life in it. I think of it as my father, in his characteristic modesty, reminding me as a teacher of all that we discussed.

This is a small item, but as I say, it has life, in both stillness and breath of movement. It recalls a Culture of Life that has been snuffed in the pillowing of our falsely upholstered consumerist ease: the death-in-life into which we have tumbled, choking and ensnared. Instead, it is like Christ, in the sense that we cannot keep Him dead, and no matter what we do, He will be Resurrected.

For to my mind, in the revived faith of a restored, Christian, Culture of Life, we will not only have living babies, born and not aborted; loved and not chopped up to supply body parts to the Moloch of Science. We will also have Art that is living and awakening, and a music to sing of the light, mysteriously yet unmistakably shining, beyond the vast region of the grave.

Per crucem ad lucem

If gentle reader has been aboard a sailboat during a good blow, he will appreciate the stress on windows. This increases dramatically with the size of the window — a serious problem in structural engineering, compounded by the need to support the weight of the window itself. The lead joining the coloured pieces in the transparent mosaic of stained glass — is soft, to say nothing of heavy. Hence the iron bars, and traceried stone, integrated into the design of the great Gothic cathedral windows.

One thinks of Saint-Chapelle, that glorious lightbox on the Île de la Cité, in Paris. At first it seems all glass, and no stone. There has been, recently, a magnificent restoration (paid almost entirely from private donations); I have just learnt about this, and long to go there right away. I can’t, but I can see from the pictures what has been done, to restore the chapel’s original lucidity. For a man of the thirteenth century, as I pretend to be, it looks like home.

A remarkable amount of mediaeval glasswork remains; this because there was once so much of it. Most has been lost, however. Yet surprisingly little was lost to “natural causes,” such as wind storms, for the men who constructed these windows knew what they were doing, and their patrons — in this case Saint Louis IX — were themselves often infused with the Gloria. This Capetian king had bought from the bankrupt Emperor at Constantinople what mediaeval men believed to be the Crown of Thorns. (Perhaps in due course we will discover that it was as advertised.) Thus he had to build a worthy place to keep it. No expense would be spared, for so precious a relic.

The chapel had to embody the meaning of that Crown; to declare the full Gloria, without the smallest hint of austerity. It must be an explosive blast of holy, glorious light. Designers and workmen had to be found whose skills were adequate to this intention.

Survival is never an accident, in this world. The story of the survival of Saint-Chapelle, to the present day, nearly eight centuries after its conception, is so tangled that I won’t begin. The miracle is that it is still there, right in the centre of Paris, notwithstanding such facts as the French Revolution; that it has been preserved and repeatedly repaired. God is surely mixed up in every turn of this unlikely story.

Tourists still flock through, with the tour guides, trudging the way tourists trudge. Except, the chapel explodes before them, and in the brilliant light of midday they are stunned. Human eyes are not prepared for such beauty: it is like looking into the Sun. They could not have imagined that such a shrine could be built with human hands. They are looking at the product of a civilization almost infinitely greater than their own. It is like an encounter with the extraterrestrial.


It is a bleak fact that most of the great works of art in the highest phases of civilization have been, over time, destroyed — either pointedly and purposefully, or as “collateral” from some larger intentional act of destruction: war usually, or riot. Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, can be troublesome, too, in districts that are prone to them. But man, as a destructive force, is by far the worst enemy of great art.

“Modern man,” in his tower flats and suburbs, who thanks to “progress in education” may not realize that milk comes from cows, needs to have these things explained to him. The grand minsters and shrines whose ruins may enchant him, did not dissolve like cakes in the rain. They were wrecked on purpose, and the missing stone was “privatized.” They became stone quarries. For without protection, founded in love, nothing survives.

A naïve hippie of my then acquaintance, decades ago, asked a thoughtful question. Why did sculptors, in times gone by, so often leave the heads off statues? What got into them, to depict gods and people headless?

We were in northern India at the time, where every head is missing from every statue (unless I missed one) for a thousand miles. There was a reason for this. The sculptors had originally remembered to include the heads, I explained. But later, certain iconoclast fanatics, while conquering Hindustan, removed them with big hammers. Rather as today, their spiritual descendants have smashed what remained of Palmyra, and Bamiyan. (I think that may have been the first time, in India all those years ago, I used the expression, “Devils in human flesh.”)

She was a Glaswegian hippie, slightly prejudiced against one religious group, so in the interest of world peace I explained it was not just the Muslims. Back home she would find that her Presbyterian ancestors (and mine) had performed the same service for the Caledonian statuary. They derived their pleasure, too, from smashing stained glass windows, melting chalices, shredding elegant liturgical garments, defacing murals, torching libraries, and so forth. To the Scottish mind, at the Reformation, the more beautiful an object, the more flagrant an example of “popery” it was.

And yes, the Puritans “did England,” too, only a little less thoroughly, reaching their peak of violent destruction under Cromwell. Nor can one study mediaeval art, across the continent of Europe, without frequent reminders of what the Reformation was really about.

In America, the Pilgrim Fathers had it easier. They were taking possession of virgin territory (from the virgin inhabitants). Their task was more simply to prevent beauty from getting started.

But it keeps coming back, and in less than a century, their own descendants were decorating again. By this time continuous Western traditions that had engendered such monuments as Saint-Chapelle, had been fractured. The “reformed” mind can take pleasure in contemplating the fact that little of great beauty was ever erected, on this side of the Atlantic, north of the Rio Grande. For just when the new folk art traditions were beginning to coalesce, into something deeper and broader and larger, and the impulse to high civilization was stirring again, the Industrial Revolution came to knock it flat.

Now here is a curious thing about religion, or rather I have noticed two curious things over the decades through which I have considered its phenomena. The first is that religion is the binding force that enables a race of barbaric savages (such as occupied Europe, in the decline of pagan Rome) to rise out of their condition. Or prevents them from doing so. (It depends on the religion.)

The second is that, while the appeal of religion is ultimately to the individual soul — telling him how to live, and what to do; what is noble and ignoble, and why — it has profound communal implications. This is true not only of Christianity, but of all the “world religions” including, paradoxically, our contemporary “Secular Humanism” — that vicious parody of religious bigotry and blind intolerance.

Obvious as this may be to some, it is not accessible to the post-Christian mind, taught in our schools that Secular Humanism is “not a religion” but rather the cure — that it is unadulterate sweet reason. This forms minds more thoroughly atomized and iconoclastic, than any in history. It is an axiom of the post-Christian pedagogue, that children can be raised in a culturally “neutral” way; that “freedom” commands they be left to decide their own affiliation as they grow up — so long as it is with Secular Humanism.

This teaching has unleashed one of the most powerful forces in nature: that very human narcissism that the religious try to tamp down. Today we celebrate our self-esteem. Sometimes this is called, “the American Dream,” though any other secular nationality can be substituted for “American.” It is the dream of an empty but unlimited self-creation — of the “creative destruction” that, like Hell, goes on forever.

But people did not create themselves. Nor, as a certain U.S. president avers, are they created by government departments. They did not in the first instance even give themselves their own names, and could hardly have acquired a language by wandering in the wilderness alone. Survival itself requires parenting in our species; and that is where “cultural neutrality” ends.

Every identifying quality in a human being, that raises us above the naked animals, is inculcated, given or endowed; everything you are, beyond an “accident of nature,” is a product of family and society, resting finally upon the Grace of God. All human thought is interplay, and the most isolated eremite has taken with him a mind formed, and delineated, by other minds. In the most remote location this continues: a song between soloist and choir.


“But my darling, there is nothing about your little ‘self’ that is worth expressing.”

I do not think Mrs Wrigglesworth (a backward-looking teacher, half a century ago) ever said this to anyone, in an “art class” or elsewhere. She did not need to; her eyes said it for her. Her principles were the precise opposite of those now enforced by the immense, Kafkaesque, education bureaucracies. She inspired little children, barely ten years old, to rise out of their “natural” condition; not, as today, to relax into depravity. (I allude, for instance, to the new “sex ed” curriculum in the Province of Ontario, wherein children about that age are now to be taught the joys of masturbation.)

No one, in particular no artist, has anything to express “from within,” except crude, often perverted appetites, and a more general propensity to sin. That is what “is in man,” as Christ perfectly knew. To get better from us requires some hold, some purchase, on what lies finally outside us.


For a break from this rant, or perhaps to review, let me link a short tour of Saint-Chapelle. (Here.) It is conducted by a very knowing tour guide; a man whom I admire. Perhaps, tomorrow being the fourteenth anniversary of 9/11, I shall return to the topic of stained glass.

Chronicles of nullity

A correspondent calls my attention to one of the items that suddenly disappeared from Canon Law, yesterday, without being replaced. This is Canon 1676, in the 1983 Code, which reads:

“Before he accepts a case and whenever there appears to be hope of success, the judge is to use pastoral means to persuade the spouses that, if it is possible, they should perhaps validate their marriage and resume their conjugal life.”

This I might have characterized as a Catholic example of, “first, do no harm.” Not all marital catastrophes are irretrievable; and even “non-marital” live-in, and other extended, libidinous “relationships,” can sometimes be improved. Breaking them off is only one of the possible improvements. One’s mind should be open.

Among those appealing to the ecclesial authorities for the nullification of their marriage vows, there could conceivably be some who have as little appreciation of what they are doing as they had, apparently, when they got married. So why not begin at the beginning?

Even if reconciliation looks impossible on a first cursory glance, and may veritably prove impossible, some good might come from the demonstration, and perhaps specifically from the pain of demonstrating, that a spouse is a spouse is a spouse. “Marriage counselling” does not always fail. It only fails most of the time.

Among those with any faith at all, the sight of a priest meddling might be instructive: a “game changer.” Among those without, what are we bothering with anyway?

That is the beauty of the “annulment process”: that it implies some degree of Faith. The applicant must want somehow to regularize his standing, not only with some future spouse, but before God. Or why is he here? He might finally want to be eligible for Communion. Too, he might want to give future children a chance, at not being bastards. (Of course, of course, the children are thought of last; but they have souls, too.)

For secular divorce papers are easy enough to obtain, as often as required, in all modern jurisdictions — the State no longer believing it has an interest in preserving civilization. Holy Church still has an interest, however.

It is odd to argue — but then, I am odd — that an “annulment” (itself a shorthand term) should be made more, not less, difficult to obtain. Or that, even once granted, the Church should not then casually permit “remarriage” to parties who have sufficiently proved themselves unable to comprehend the Sacrament in the past. Surely, in an institution as large as the Catholic Church, someone should be lobbying for higher standards. This isn’t impossible; it was done in previous centuries.

Yes: it is often a waste of time, to work on reconciliation, but it is not always a waste of time. Paul, for analogy, did not cancel his trip to Iconium because the Pisidians had told him to eff-off; there might still be someone who wants to listen in the next town.

Too, there seems no longer an understanding that failure is useful, in itself. What they can’t handle now, they might remember later. If what they need to learn is that marriage is indissoluble, rubbing in their noses might help to obviate their next mistakes. Much else might be indirectly achieved by forcing a split-up couple to confront the gravity of what they have done — and of the risk they are taking, now, in carrying it farther. The risk, that is to say, with God. For truly, no one fully in his right mind can want to be on the wrong side of the Creator of the Universe.

“But that’s so unfair!”

Read once again the several Gospel parables in which Christ seems to go out of his way, to prove that He is “unfair,” by the usual earthly definitions. Is it always “unfair” that you don’t get what you want? …

A supplementary question might be, “Are you three years old?”

“It’s so unfair to the children!” By which is meant, I should think, the children of the subsequent “domestic arrangement.” This is pretty rich, when the children of the antecedent have been written off.

I am not a canonist; gentle reader is free to ignore all my opinions on this and other topics. I can at best refer him to such Internet authorities as Ed Peters (his blog, In the Light of the Law, here), or to the wonderful talk Cardinal Burke gave yesterday at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. (Here.)

This latter made a point that I would count as courageous, about justice “for the children” of second and subsequent “marriages.” They are, after all, bastards; where’s the injustice in that? They were, after all, born into that condition; it wasn’t the Church that made them that way. We are talking here about a fact already accomplished; an “injustice” that has been already done.

Yet it is not “unjust” that a bastard is a bastard. (I am using this word in its technical, not in its derogatory sense.) No matter what may be done to alleviate his social disadvantages (and in today’s society, I can’t think what they are), he will always have been born to parents who weren’t sacramentally married; to parents who were living in mortal sin.

Again: that is fact, that is why we have legal tribunals — to get at some facts. This does not mean the bastards’ children must also be bastards in their turn. It only means that their own condition is something we can’t change. Salvation the Church may and must attempt, and there can be salvation for bastards, but the facts of the past are incapable of amendment. Only a Stalin will try to change those.

I should like to state what I think is the forgotten position, more forcefully. For it is not only of “sacramental marriage” that we are losing sight.

We are losing sight of “natural marriage,” into the bargain.

Inscribed on the blackened little heart of the applicant for nullity is still God’s natural law. Humans, it can be said, are a monogamous species. How do you “feel” when you discover that your mate has cheated on you? How does your mate “feel” upon discovering that you have selfishly cheated? Or let us say, upon being discarded, how do you “feel”? … Badly?

Good, the machinery of natural law seems to be working.

And what do the words, “do as you would be done by,” mean to you? …

Excellent, now we are getting somewhere.

All this, together with the knowledge that sex leads “naturally” to babies, and even that children need love, food, clothing, and protection, together with somewhere to live — all this comes even before religion. And among those not actually insane, or otherwise mentally debilitated, the knowledge of this is baked in so well that it is impossible to scrape out. Even out there in the world of the juke box, the evidence from heartbreak can be obtained. Men and women know how things really are: in their bones, in their DNA. Even the playboys and the feminists know. They are only pretending not to.

It should be amazing, for any tribunal, to be told, with a straight face, that the applicant “did not know” what marriage was. This, surely, is the first hurdle to be climbed over. Perhaps it should be greeted with derisive laughter. Perhaps that was the key thing missing from the 1983 Code — the most merciful thing when viewed in the largest: the need to mock and humiliate the applicant from the start, and slap him into his senses, rather than indulge his reaksome self-pity. For sacramental marriage can only be founded on natural marriage; which in its turn is hard not to understand.

The Pharisees tried to entrap Jesus on this point: whether it were lawful to put away a wife for any cause. To which He replied:

Have ye not read, that He who made men from the beginning, made them male and female?

Apparently they had. And so He said,

For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they twain shall be one flesh.

Moreover, to avoid misunderstanding, He added,

Wherefore now they are no more twain, but one flesh.

Then, lest this be mistaken for a suggestion — some sort of “idea” the professor has put in play —  He doubled down, rephrasing the analysis as a Command:

What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

I have had reason to want an annulment myself, as the years, now decades pass, of aloneness. But I read that and think: not so fast.

Jack & Jill, over the hill

“You can’t have the penny and the bun.”

I have this on the authority of Geoff Boycott, the greatest of Yorkshiremen and cricketers; the lock on all lickety-splitters; the stickiest of all sticky wicketers. Among the slowest of run-scorers in first class cricket, in his prime. But you couldn’t get him out. I watched him once, against Australia, build a score of 191, but take a couple of days to do it. He was the despair of the human slingshots — those terrifying, Antipodean fast bowlers. He was the immovable object, defeating the irresistible force. A hero of my youth.

This is a Yorkshire expression, as gentle reader may have guessed. It can be translated, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Americans need to know that Yorkshire is, or was, the Texas of England, proportional to size. Larger than life in both cases, but subtly different in their use of rhetorical figures: hyperbole v. meiosis, as it were.

Texan: “It takes a whole day to drive my car around my ranch.”

Yorkshireman: “I had a car like that once.”

The law of non-contradiction is older than that — older than the penny, older than the bun. But subscription to it has never been universal. It was once the belief of most men, for instance, that women were peculiarly vulnerable to the “unnatural” desire to have things both ways. We know better than that now: the feminists have corrected us.

Note, in passing, the two uses of “natural” — the distinction between what one wants; and what one ought to want, because it is right. They are not the same. Oh no. (And what one gets is another thing entirely.)

Here is a contemporary example from Rome. Over twenty centuries, the Catholic Church, at some considerable cost to herself (think of Henry VIII, for starters), has maintained that marriage is indissoluble — just the way Jesus said in the Bible. This she will continue to do, as we are frequently assured. Meanwhile, she will make the dissolution of marriages much easier, by “streamlining” the annulment process. Numerous obstacles have, this very morning, been swept away. You don’t have to wait; it won’t cost you money; you needn’t worry about having it contested any more.

All that “red tape” peeled away, with just the one bottle of Goo Gone.

And then, on top of that, we get a whole new chapter of canons in Book VII of the Code of Canon Law, just to replace what the Goo Gone gobbled.

I am so old, I can remember when the secular laws on divorce were streamlined like this. But let us not be detained by the nostalgia of an old man, for the days when, happily or not, families stayed together — largely because it was inconceivable for them to break up. Marriage, you see, was considered indissoluble, once (and not only by Catholics). Or if not absolutely indissoluble, since nothing in this earth ever is, at least pretty darn close to it. So close, that the “option” was not constantly in everyone’s mind.

“Go for it,” is how I would summarize the new position. The irresistible force has defeated the immovable object.

Dare we say that the number of annulments is now going to skyrocket?

Nah, maybe not. For how many people take the Catholic Church seriously any more, after fifty years of “the spirit of Vatican II”? And the few who do are not the divorcing types. They’re too busy raising children.

Sometimes my head is full of monastic chant, or the music of William Byrd, or last night, the Missa Praeter rerum seriem, of Cipriano de Rore, founded on the immortal hymn by Josquin des Prés — and played off a little CD — in anticipation of this morning of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Now called “Birthday” in the Novus Ordo.)

But this morning, upon reading the latest news from Rome, what came into my head was instead a Paul Simon tune from the ’seventies:

Just slip out the back, Jack;
Make a new plan, Stan;
Don’t need to be coy, Roy —
Just get yourself free.

Hop on the bus, Gus;
Don’t need to discuss much —
Just drop off the key, Lee,
And get yourself free.

Our gracious Queen

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen of Canada, becomes this week the longest-serving monarch in British history. This will be on Wednesday, a little after noon our time, when Queen Victoria’s sixty-three years, two hundred sixteen days, will (Insha’Allah) be surpassed. I do not think she reads this Idleblog, but if anyone who does is speaking to her, please pass along my loyal and devoted congratulations.

I mention this on British North American “Labour Day,” as it is such an extraordinary work history. There is no question the Queen, now in her ninetieth year, has been among the hardest-working of all the people in the present and former British Commonwealth of Nations, through all the time since her sudden and dramatic elevation to the throne, on the untimely death of her beloved father, the 6th of February, 1952.

All of her prime ministers (and there have been hundreds of them) can attest, and most have attested, to the remarkable mastery of her brief; many have been embarrassed to discover that the Queen is better informed than they are, on the very topics they have come to discuss. Such is her presence that, regardless of political party, it is doubtful that any politician has gone back to see her, not thoroughly prepared, a second time.

We call her a “constitutional” monarch, in the sense that the power to make and pass legislation resides, in British realms, entirely with Parliament; and so she is obliged to give royal assent to their various, typically foolish schemes. The Speech from the Throne in every House, modelled on Westminster, is written in the office of the Prime Minister of the day, not in the Palace. This is a great pity, but is the result nevertheless of a long, mostly unwritten, constitutional history that cannot easily be undone, nor should be except gradually, with abundant caution. Happily no one, who is not insane, holds our Queen responsible for the nonsense she must read and sign.

Yet behind closed doors she has an influence that has grown with her experience over the years. In their memoirs, I think every British prime minister since her first (Winston Churchill), has credited her useful contributions, simply from asking questions or making suggestions that no one else had thought of. For she is in possession of a fine political mind, able to compass details that lie beyond the reach of most politicians.

A very intelligent, elderly, constitutional monarch is of inestimable value in this regard. She serves, in a sense, as a living institutional memory. Even a young one has the advantage of a family history, and an upbringing, of value as a corrective to men who can think only of immediate personal advantage — risen as they are from the gutter, up the greasy pole. She is there to remind, or even to teach them, in a place where their vulgarity will not be exposed: behind those closed palace doors.

Which is to say nothing of the worthy monarch as a living symbol of a nation in its breadth and unity, above the stench and sleaze, the deceit and corruption of the democratic process.

Discretion is a real virtue in government and diplomacy — human lives depend upon it — and so great is Her Majesty’s accomplishment, that no one is able to guess her private political views. From the left of the Labour to the right of the Conservative Party, each has been under the impression that she sympathizes in some obscure way with at least some of their views; but none can articulate what this amounts to, beyond a prudent, thoughtful, and general benignity.

Queen Elizabeth is immensely charming, except on occasions when it is not in the interests of civility to be charming. She is secretly capable of rather cutting remarks, among trusted friends; and of a sharp wit she is on guard not to exhibit publicly. Indeed, it takes great intelligence to learn how to be boring in the proper way, on all State occasions; and most of her waking hours have been, since 1952, tedious State occasions.

On the other hand, she has been straightforward in defence of what were, until very recently in the decline of our civilization, the “motherhood issues.” Those who have audited her Christmas and other public messages over the years will know the aggregate effect of the delicious phrases she is apt to repeat. My own favourite is, “My husband and I,” so often dropped in to avoid the “royal we,” without conceding its formality, and falling just short of droll.

My own loyal heart has beat the fonder since a moment in Canterbury, many years ago, when I watched her perform the duty of providing some light, extempore public chatter, right after the Anglican Primate.

“The Archbishop of Canterbury has just spoken to you on the subject of sin,” she began. “And he was, against. … I shall now speak on the subject of the family. And I shall be, for.”

Much more one could say about this gracious woman, who has truly earned the love and admiration of the great majority of her subjects, so that even the nasty republicans among them do not speak against her personally; and even the brutish Scots nationalists are careful to specify that they would keep the Queen. They will perhaps attack her children for their sometimes loutish, modern behaviour; or even her (magnificent) husband for his quaint habit of uttering truths that have become politically incorrect, but through her entire reign, so far as I recall, there was, outside Quebec, only the one moment of popular hysteria — after the death of Princess Diana — when the vicious mob turned briefly against her. This was over a question of protocol that they did not have the education to understand.

On which occasion she had the wit to break with protocol, and lower a flag that is never lowered in mourning, to assuage and calm them. It was done in the same alert serenity with which she once controlled the horse on which she was riding, that nearly bolted from a gunshot nearby — undistracted by any thought that the bullet was probably meant for her.

For this is the skill by which all monarchs should be judged, whether they be “constitutional,” or “absolute,” or something in between. The mob — “the people” — are like a wild horse: not evil, necessarily, or not always evil; but wild and, in emergencies, needing to be soothed and tamed. The role of the monarch is to prevent them from hurting themselves, or hurting each other, in the unpredictable moments of alarm. Her Majesty has shown positive genius through all the alarms of sixty-three years, and counting.

And verily: Long may she reign!

A funeral for Sunday

From the sermon notes of Blessed J.H. Newman, we learn the names of the pallbearers at today’s funeral in the city of Naim. They are Pride, Sensuality, Unbelief, and Ignorance. The burial of the Natural Man will proceed — through the city gate, to the cemetery beyond — accompanied by a large crowd of mourners, led by the keening mother of the deceased.

“He was so young!” … “And she a widow, and this her only child!” … “It is all so sad!” …

But what’s this? … Jesus and His disciples are approaching the same town. The two processions meet. It is a memorable day, for the Natural Man is about to be raised from the dead.

From the sermon notes of Saint Augustine: “If all men have eyes to see the dead rise, like the son of this widow spoken of in this Gospel, all nevertheless have not eyes to see men rise from spiritual death. For that, it is necessary oneself to have undergone spiritual resurrection.”

We are burying once again, in the West, the old Natural Man. In his millions. In Switzerland, for instance, they are burying them — the dead burying the dead, in the mountains. No Jesus in sight, unfortunately.

“Traddies” — i.e. faithful Catholics, like myself I dearly hope, tend to become vexed by news that Swiss bishops, along with a liberal selection from France and Germany, are endlessly meeting to prepare their strategies for the upcoming Family Synod at Rome. They have made their position clear. They claim to have Pope Francis on their side, but unlike the pontiff they are not proposing “mercy” for the divorced and remarried, for homosexual couples, for contraceptive practitioners and the like. Not at all.

They are demanding that the “official” Church recognize all these modern, essentially sterile couplings as a good thing. The Church must bless them!

Permission was hardly required. There is now on the books of no Western country of which I am aware anything to prevent them. The disapproval of the Catholic Church gets in no one’s way. Not even in the way of Catholics, today. They may continue copulating like stoats, and celebrating themselves in a kind of stoat glory, whatever Holy Church might happen to say.

So what is the Natural Man’s big problem? His medical “issues” are covered by the State, and when it comes to that, he hardly needs the Church to be buried or otherwise disposed of. The rebels from the “traditional” doctrines of Rome have got it made. It is as Philip Larkin put it:

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

These are bishops, mind, of the Catholic Church, making these demands. But as Sandro Magister points out, the German bishops especially — the ones we know as talking faces, such as Cardinal Marx and Cardinal Kasper — are conservative, and come across as prudes — when their views are compared to those of their nomenklatura. They may cite a survey done last winter of six thousand “professional Catholics” in Switzerland — of pastoral workers, catechists, parish councillors, the formal reps of women’s and men’s associations, groups and communities — who demand more, in unprettier language. The mitres are only the top of the iceberg: the bits we can see.

In Switzerland, as in Germany, registered Catholics pay tithes to the Church through the tax system. This helps to explain the extremely high production values in their latest publication (this one) in German, French, and Italian. The title could be translated, Diversity of Families in the Catholic Church: Stories and Reflections. It is their red flag for the upcoming synod. In the course of telling smarm stories about the latest new forms of family life, it simply ignores two millennia of Catholic teaching, and avoids mentioning such figures in the history of that Church, as Jesus Christ, or Mother Mary. Instead it celebrates “the way we live now.”

Far from merely tolerating, or forgiving, we learn that the Church must recognize this “progress” in our social life, encourage and support it. Or else: there will be an unprecedented “migration” out of the Church. All these modern people inside will just up and leave, we are solemnly warned. The way they’ve been leaving this last half-century, “in the spirit of Vatican II,” I should think. Well, maybe not unprecedented, but the ones who have stuck around will leave, too. Mark their words!

And you know what that means. They will no longer be paying tithes, and all those liberal German and Swiss bishops might, as the terrible consequence, lose their funding. They won’t be able to spread their “new gospel” around the rest of the world, any more. Not if they go broke. Maybe some of them will have to look for other jobs. I am trying to imagine it, as I write.

I think this would be great. The more post-Catholics out the door, the better. The expression is “make my day,” I believe.

Good luck to them all. …

Adios! arrivederci! tchau! au revoir! … Auf Wiedersehen!

Until we meet again!

Either in Hell, or on the road to Naim.

On fear

Saint John Paul II, of increasingly beloved memory, stressed so often these two angelic words, scattered throughout the Scriptures: “Fear not.” They are a counterpoint to another oft-encountered phrase: “Fear God.” I wrote “angelic” in the sense that, when not spoken by Our Lord, they are most likely to be spoken by angels, as for instance ad pastores, “Fear not, I bring you tidings of great joy.”

To the glib reader — and let me include myself, as I have discovered myself to be with the passing of the years — there would be some paradox here. To the contemporary, post-Christian reader, it is a flat contradiction. How can one be told not to fear, when one has been told to fear? The best he might gloss would be, “Fear this, and not that.” Which as so often with these godless folk, makes an excellent beginning.

In Thomas Aquinas, his Summa Theologica — II-II, beginning at questio 125, if you must know — the whole matter is dealt with. (Someone should perhaps bring it to the attention of Donald Trump.)

The Angelic Doctor deals with fear itself; whether and in what circumstances it might be a sin, or could even rise to a mortal sin; or under other circumstances might excuse from sin; whether it is necessarily contrary to fortitude; whether fearlessness is a sin; whether fearlessness might be opposed to fortitude; and so forth, into a rounder consideration of daring, bravery, and the virtue of fortitude considered in its several aspects or parts or as he puts it, “modes” — finally relating to the theological virtue of Hope. Let the serious reader found his contemplation on that, rather than this.

As I know from email, many of my readers are afraid. Few feel bound to exhibit the virtue of fortitude; and I should almost say that their fear of fearlessness is greater than their fear of fear. They are a gentle lot, compared at least to me. Also, predominantly, Christian.

My Czech buddies, with whom I used to drink, had as their motto: “If God is with us, who can be against us?” This might sound brash and arrogant, to someone who knows not Czechs; in fact they were the opposite of aggressive. It struck me that this saying from Saint Paul perfectly balances the two propositions: to fear not, and to fear God.

A paradox exists only on the surface. The key to the rational explanation of this one passes back, I think, from Aquinas through Aristotle even to Plato’s Socrates. It is that sin is worse than punishment; that for the man who has done wrong, being discovered, and being punished for what he has done, is in the happiest sense fortuitous. He should want to turn himself in, as it were; he should want to pay and be cleansed of evil-doing.

The two little words, “fear not,” themselves contain a great deal of information, once we know they are of God. They address us personally. They show that God knows our hearts: that when we fear, we fear for ourselves and for our own; that this is natural, when something is presented that makes us afraid. On the contrary, to be free of any temptation to fear, is unnatural. This latter is not fortitude, which requires some moral starch; the psychopath is fearless.

If we are not to fear externals — things like loss and pain and death — we will need the help of angels. As we see from Scripture, the angels come; and too, perhaps, from personal experience, the help arrives when it is meekly called for. (“Lord, get me through this!”) They are not merely an instruction, not to fear. They are a breath that fills us.

The expression, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” is, by contrast, pagan, and fatuous. It is an expression of bravado, and of the stoicism that is so often sold today, not as holiness but as an alternative to it. The hospitals and nursing homes, I have found, are full of old stoics breaking down, because the human spine can take only so much pressure, before it snaps. And the whimpering of stoics is especially unpleasant to the ear.

Of course we have more to fear than fear itself: fear of bombs and bullets is perfectly rational, and fully human; as is, too, the fear of a cancer, or of a trick heart, or in old age of an internal infection that may verily suddenly turn us into another of those corpses. The brave face holds up only until we panic. Fear of hanging is also quite reasonable in a man: the greater if he is close enough to God, to realize that Hell may yawn before him.

But we have, today, little fear of Hell. As I like to quote Czeslaw Milosz: “A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death: the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged.”

And yet, a personal fear that one may go to Hell, while admirable in some cases, may in others be much closer to a neurosis. (I think of an old New Yorker cartoon, of a businessman in a suit, on the clouds before Saint Peter. “No, no,” Saint Peter is saying, “that wasn’t a sin either. You poor man, you must have worried yourself to death!”)

For the proper fear of God consists not in the fear of punishment, but in fear of the sin that deserves it.

Or at least this is the case, in my callow understanding: that it is a “fear of falling,” out of God’s grace. A fear, in that sense, of the Eye of God, turned upon our worthless and disobedient behaviour. A fear and a horror of what we, like Adam, have done with the very gift of our life, displeasing to our Maker. It is, perhaps, properly considered, the most “objective” fear there can be, freeing us as it does from all our cheap “subjective” judgements.


A professor friend reports:

“I saw something yesterday that I thought you might appreciate. Daughter Margaret and I were walking back from ‘Dollarama’ on Vaughan Road last night, where we had been acquiring some school supplies, and we passed a police cruiser.  Climbing out of it (not being forced into it) was a youngish woman, ‘rebelliously’ dressed, with whom it seems the coppers had wanted a word.  They thanked her and sent her on her way.

“She walked along directly in front of us as we crossed St Clair Avenue. Right at the crossing is a shop called ‘Manila Foods’, which often has a sidewalk display of fruits and vegetables. The woman walked to the display and deftly scooped up a banana with her hands hidden by her bag. Then she walked on.

“I was contemplating whether I ought to tell her she had been observed, or just go back to the shop and reimburse them for the theft. But when we came to the next corner, she suddenly spun round, muttering, ‘Aw, shit!’

“She walked back to the counter, replaced the banana, and then turned back round again.

“It took me a moment to realize what had happened: she had just reached St Alphonsus Church at the corner of Vaughan and St Clair, and evidently she felt that she could not walk past it while carrying stolen goods. The last I saw of her, she was climbing the steps of the church and sitting down by the door.

“Perhaps Saint Alphonsus the Casuist was explaining to her that stealing wouldn’t ultimately be a satisfying way to get back at Toronto’s Finest.”