Essays in Idleness


Old wine in old bottles

According to the inhabitants of Seta (or Cette, in the old, disintegrating book I am reading) — a city on a hill about three leagues west of Montpellier — it is possible with the simpler wines of Catalonia and Roussillon, the excellent inexpensive local brandy, and plentiful springwater, to make “Port, Sherry, Clarets, Burgundy, Champaigne, Hock” and almost any other wine, to a very low standard. The town was bursting with enterprise. Barely two centuries ago, they were supplying all Europe (except England which had high customs duties) with inferior imitations of these beverages. Yes, except for England (and the cruel efficiency of her Revenue Cutters), free trade and capitalism were flourishing, and “the people” everywhere liked “cheap.”

Some things do not change, except in crude volume.

The town of Besièrs (or Béziers, or Bezières, but I prefer the Occitan spelling), mid way between Montpellier and beloved Carcassonne, is among the towns I wish I had visited during my longish Continental walks, earlier in life. It was the principal source of this good, cheap brandy, and too, from what I’ve read, a beautiful town just inland of the cliffs above the Mediterranean Sea.

Granted, there was much destruction, in July of 1209, so that monuments before that date are damaged if not extinct. The inhabitants refused to hand over their Cathar heretics, when the assembled Crusaders asked politely at their gates. Instead they dug in. Yet there were known to be faithful Catholics in the town, including priests, in addition to the many excitables.

It was indeed the place where the Albigensian Crusade began. Gentle reader may recall an historical sound-bite associated with this event. Arnaud Amalric, the Abbot of Cîteaux (or Cistaux if we want to be old-fashioned) — the papal legate advising the Crusaders — was asked by a conscientious soldier how to tell the heretics apart from the faithful when they stormed the town.

Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius,” the good abbot replied. Or in English, “Kill them all; God will know his own.”

Whether or not he agrees with this approach or stratagem, I’m sure gentle reader will join me in admiring how succinctly it was expressed; and in reflecting that this decisive action had a very positive result, postponing the Reformation for another three hundred years.

Besièrs, almost as old as Marseilles (founded six centuries before Christ), and known to sportsmen as a centre of French bullfighting, is not my topic today. Instead we visit a smaller town, approaching from the east. The author, Derwent Conway (nom de plume of Henry David Inglis) does not name it in the book I am reading.

His own tour, of 1830, begins with a circuit of Switzerland; descends the Rhône, to wander across southern France; ascends the Pyrenees; then comes down through Bordeaux; ending with an itinerary along the Loire. It was published at Edinburgh the next year, in the two pocket volumes I now have from a Greater Parkdale flea market. There was an old letter tucked inside, to the book’s former owner, recommending it for remarks on French wines, which the writer found astute after more than a century. The correspondents were apparently serious imbibers, and the work was given in return for a fine Chambertin ’28, two cases of which had been “liberated” in 1944.

But that is to take us off the road to Besièrs in 1830. This Conway, or Inglis — a Scottish advocate who became bored, and exchanged his trade for journalism and travel — must have been a quick walker. I do not think I could have covered his route in a single season, even in my prime; though it must be said he resorted to coaches and horses, river boats and ferries, through some sections of his journey. Most of it would have been “pedestrianism,” however; which is still possible if one’s legs will permit the exercise. I took the occasional motor autobus myself; but will insist the only way to notice the country one tours, is to walk across it. …

To Lourdes, for example, twenty-eight years before the Marian apparitions. Through many other towns, before other things happened — if one can read, and thus return to a time when the open road was a genuine adventure. It remains so in some places today, I suppose, but only if one is following the footpath rights of way, parish to parish, off the thunder’d pavement. Anything over four miles per hour (between halts) will blur all the gorgeous details. Except the thrill from heights, air travel is insupportable.

The English-speaking peoples were once renowned, or condemned, as persistent travellers. An explanation for this is provided by a French gentleman in whose company the author found himself at the table d’hôte in this unnamed little town. The Frenchman called it, la maladie noir — a restless desire to move from one place to another, as if in search of some cure. Conway admits that this is exactly what afflicted him before he left home. “Itchy feet,” we call it, with pretended innocence. (My own feet still itch terribly, as my mind succumbs to elderly nostalgia.)

Better to read these older ambulators than the newer, for after all, the parts we want to see are invariably those which were built before modernity and suburbanism drowned them in “diversity” (i.e. total sameness), and the invasion of monied mass tourism rendered even the surviving good bits so tourist-crowded and glib. Visitez les plus belles régions de France before Alphonse de Lamartine has laid down his confounded railways, and all the noise and ugliness is edited away. The wonders of this world are all now museums, and until the Islamists blow them up, will only “make your feet hot.” (Whistler’s comment after a frenetic afternoon in the Uffizi.)

I should also like to read Conway’s tour of Scandinavia; his Solitary Walks through many Lands; his Rambles in the Footsteps of Don Quixote; his journeys through the Tyrol “with a glance at Bavaria”; his observations on Ireland. He is a masterfully attentive journalist, interactive with all passing life; and the composer of innumerable wonderful asides, including analyses worthy of a Tocqueville. (For instance his explanation of why the best brandy comes from places like Besièrs, which are the worst wine districts.)

He commanded such illustrators as George Cruikshank (for the book on Spain), in the days before photography ruined everything. He was quoted in Parliament as an authority on foreign and even Irish affairs. He is an admirable prose writer, comparable to the novelists of his generation. Unlike our better “magazine” writers of today, he is not merely bigoted, ignorant, illiterate, vain, pandering, quarrelsome, and thick.

Book of Eccles

Perhaps I am a little giddy from recent illness, and should avoid making magisterial statements until I am elected pope, but I have found that an effective way to avoid the Sin of Wrath is to read the blog, Eccles is Saved (here), before turning to the other ecclesiastical news. This is especially useful in Lent, when the sin in question might easily be provoked as an ancillary to one’s lust for e.g. a thick juicy hamburger with swiss cheese and bacon rashers. Gentle reader will of course form his own judgement. He often does.

For as our crusading ancestors learnt: never attack a Saracen encampment during Ramadan, while the sun shines. Wait until two hours after it has set.

It was by means of this device (prophylactic reading of the blog in question) that I was able to prevent myself all week from commenting on a certain attempt to encourage deviation from the perpetually established Church teaching on contraception by citing a precedent, irrelevant in itself, based on an urban legend about Blessed Pope Paul VI (something to do with nuns in the Congo). Which was not then corrected upon landing in Rome. I could easily have slipped into mentioning the case, or any of several others that arose during a recent trans-Atlantic “presser” at an altitude of more than 30,000 feet. I was also able to avoid using the medical term, hypoxia, in a satirical way.

For as the saying goes, “Who am I to judge?”

No, no, I leave that sort of thing to gentle reader.

A safe space

Some forty years ago, and for a couple of years before and after — which is to say, once upon a time — I lived in a small workman’s cottage at Vauxhall — which is to say, towards the middle of the Great Wen of London. I often think back on this “squat,” which I occupied semi-legally until the socialist Borough of Lambeth got the money together to demolish and replace it — together with the rest of what had once been a flourishing neighbourhood of home-owning working class people — with subsidized “public housing.” Happily, it took them a long time.

Pure luck, for me; the house fell into my hands through the usual series of coincidences. I would never have found it on my own.

By my standards for the world, I was a very lucky person — until towards the age of thirty, when I began to seriously “engage” with it. Whatever I wanted seemed to fall into my hands. And at this time I was still in my early twenties. Fortunately, I had little desire for money, for then I would have had to “get a job.” My interest was instead in the acquisition of knowledge. My vanity was such that I imagined myself a budding poet and philosopher.

I am thinking of that place today, because of a pleasant event yesterday. A Czech couple, among my oldest friends, were visiting Greater Parkdale, and brought me copies of three photographs they had taken when they visited me in London about 1976. I had no other photographic evidence that “65, Wilcox Road” had ever existed. All the detailed memories that flood back, from small corners of a few old pictures!

The house was, by American standards, quite tiny indeed, with low ceilings, no cellar, but two modest bedrooms’ worth of upper floor. There was a small kitchen extension into a miniature brick-walled garden at back, with an outdoor toilet. There were working hearths or fire-boxes in each room, and gas for a kitchen cooker still supplied through a meter in which one deposited old shilling coins. Wood for heating could be obtained from the tips of local demolition contractors. Any bill for water or electricity would have been charged by the Borough as a proportion of rent, but there was no rent. (I did not use the electricity anyway, and was chintsy on the water.) The total cost of operation for the house was thus five “new pence” in the gas meter, every month or so. Plus food, but as the photographs attest, I was pale and skinny.

My largest expense was in fact an annual subscription to the London Library in St James’s Square. That was eighteen pounds, then thirty. (It is now about five hundred.) I still have the treasured card, with which I could borrow ten books at a time. There was a choice of hundred thousands, most rather erudite, and I could also spend the length of days tucked away in an obscure quiet nook, which had a window and a school desk. My own little library at home, chiefly of poets, filled never more than four shelves.

There I am, in the pictures. Shy, very serious, and in my uniform: beige canvas trousers and grey wool cardigan; clean shirt, done up to the top button; but no tie. (I didn’t own one.) Hair flaming red and self-cut. Everything washed in cold water.

I had stripped all paper from all walls down to (nearly) indestructible Victorian horse-hair plaster; and all linoleum from the floors to the original wide floorboards; and placed all branded goods in timeless baskets and canisters; so that from any angle the interior would look like it might come from any century, except perhaps the twentieth. Mail might fall through the front door, but there was no telephone. It was paradise in there.

Too, I was operating on a vow of sexual and emotional continence, made prior to Christian conversion — meant to last until I had finished reading Aristotle and “everything that went into and came out of him” (which turned out to include Thomas Aquinas). I realized that would take a long time. I was a wilful lad, and kept this vow through a few close calls, along with a certain tranquility of mind. My hippiesque neighbours (but not so hippie as an American reader might imagine) called me “The Vicar,” and showed their disapproval by ignoring me. It was an urban hermitage, near the centre of what I considered (with its libraries and galleries and theatres and museums) to be my Athens.

All pictures are of a certain date. Wander too far from these ones, and my pictures are not so edifying. These photographs were taken, I now realize, soon after my conversion to the religion of Jesus of Nazareth. The adventure had transformed me and, I think, this shows in my face; an adventure in peace, towards peace. I look so still and untroubled.

Now, when with the encroachment of age I think back on a life that is running out, I detect God’s grace: to have arranged for me the time and setting in which I could be parsed. It is what I would wish for any student today: a “safe space” of just that nature.

On desecration

It is a little-remembered fact — perhaps because those who could remember are increasingly dead — that it is possible to make a thorough hash of the Tridentine rite. Those old enough to recall church attendance in the late ’fifties and early ’sixties of the last century have several times told me that standards were slipping before Vatican II, if they had not slipped long before. In America, at least, preachiness was spreading, and the “sermon” was coming to dominate an abridged Low Mass, performed in the spirit of, “let’s get this over.”

As beloved Pope Benedict (and three predecessors) counselled and showed, an unrushed solemnity is also possible with the New Mass, if the priests are determined. It can also be made compatible with ancient and profound Christian music. In his motu proprio, fully restoring our right to the Old Mass, Benedict was at pains to avoid insult to the practitioners of the New. Both “ordinary” and “extraordinary” forms are valid; indeed, those who are Catholic should know that it will take far more than the common sort of abuse in either form to make a Mass invalid. It is actually very hard to do.

For Christ is present in the Mass, and I doubt the ability of an errant priest, with even the worst intentions in the world, to prevent Him from reaching those who come to Him. It is indeed a modern error to refocus attention from Christ, to his priest or servant. Where the latter stands in His way, the risen Christ passes through him.

But ignoring the most irritating cases — of clown costumes, guitars in the sanctuary, processions on skateboards or whatever — the Mass is the Mass is the Mass. One’s obligation to attend every Sunday is not lifted by any personal judgement of how well it is likely to be performed. Save such decisions for concerts or movies.

It may be that for many, the celebration of Mass is turned to a sad penance. Aheu, I say: the times are the times are the times, also.

A priest, whom I much admire, and who apparently admires me (I shall add “industrial-strength Catholic” to my resumé), wrote earlier this week with this chastisement:

“You referred to ‘the Novus Ordo and related desecrations,’ which I found deplorable language coming from a faithful Catholic. I find it truly disgraceful that any Catholic can refer to any approved sacramental rite of the Catholic Church as a desecration. This right was approved by Pope Paul and was confirmed by Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict the XVI, who greatly improved the text against great opposition. If you are suggesting that Pope Benedict was really in the process of ridding the church of the Novus Ordo, then I think you are greatly mistaken.”

He was referring to a passage in my Sunday Idlepost, “Don’t leave.” A word-search tells me that I have used the term “desecration” on several like occasions in the past. Habitually I make clear that I am not implying the invalidity of the New Mass, but rather, many things horrific in themselves, done in the soi-disant “spirit of Vatican II.” But now I must revisit each use of the word and check my context carefully, for in such circumstances the defence, “you know what I mean,” will not do.

The word “desecrate” is very strong. It was introduced into English in the later seventeenth century as the antithesis of “consecrate,” then used by quick extension for any act by which the nature of something is being destroyed.

I have an English-speaking mind, replete with English-speaking history. This includes the historical memory of the dissolution and physical destruction of monasteries and abbeys; the torching of ancient libraries; the theft and gift or sale of Church lands to a wealthy and self-serving new class; the terrors wreaked on monks and nuns and faithful; the hunting down and murder of honest priests; the stripping of the altars in parish churches right across England; the further destruction of heritage by Calvinist mobs; the systematic obliteration of surviving holy works by Cromwell’s Roundheads; and so forth. Too, the cynical history of Power as, for instance, the Anglican Articles of Faith were written and rewritten over the years, with a constant eye to the diplomatic and political needs of England’s Protestant rulers. And far more: suddenly echoed in the “desecrations” of a later age.

Yet no such act could or ever can touch the reality of transubstantiation; only “make a mess,” and spread a vicious ugliness, while immortally endangering countless Christian souls.

Of course the perpetrators of a former age did not think that is what they were doing. The puritan or iconoclastic mind is by its nature impervious to criticism. Nor can the perpetrators’ distant descendants be held accountable for what forgotten ancestors did; nor we, accountable for ours who took reprisals when they could. Too, all parties are unlikely to know that the longstanding “official” Whig history of England rests upon a tissue of anti-Catholic lies. My use of the term “desecration” is, in my English, full of historical allusion and recollection.

I meant to apply the analogy with the greatest possible force.

But one must take especial care when handling heavy weapons, and in this case I fear the good priest is right. There was far too much “collateral damage” from that particular shot, and perhaps others like it. I rather invited misunderstanding, and in a few days, when my current fevers and chills have subsided, I will go back over my e-paper trail and see what can be fixed.

Peter Damian

Saint Peter Damian, whose thousandth birthday must have passed by now, will be familiar to readers of Dante, who presents him in Canto XXI of the Paradiso. On checking, I see that it has: for he was less than three hundred years old when Dante met him; now he is one thousand and nine.

Young (but not youngest) son in a family rather large and poor, in the city of Ravenna, he was soon predeceased by both hapless parents and installed as child in the office of a swineherd. But an elder brother, the “Damian” whose name Peter later joined to his own, noticed that his little brother was extremely intelligent, and devoted himself to the lad’s education. Here was the origin of a Doctor of the Church — who lived a life most improbable, yet attested as historical fact. As all Saints: a life which must remain incomprehensible to us, until we begin to see that God, and not the man, is guiding it. The man has merely got out of God’s way.

God raises up such men as Peter Damian when there is need of them. He has done so in the past; He will do so in the future. We need to understand this when we are inclined to despair, because the world is going to Hell. (It was going to Hell in the eleventh century.) We cannot fix any significant thing; we can only be faithful and ourselves try to live the life that Christ exemplified.

Peter Damian was a major reforming figure in the Church through the middle of the eleventh century, of large relevance today, when the Church is passing through quite similar troubles, and her flock being bounced between good shepherds and bad. Not that she has ever experienced perfect tranquility, in this world full of wolves; not that she ever could, given conditions in this world that do not change.

Both zealous, and wise, Peter Damian became an advisor to popes, and an excoriating opponent to anti-popes. Sent repeatedly into action, against his will and desire for an invisible monastic life, he boldly confronted the “liberals” of his day, and the mobs they raised with their false teachings. I mentioned last October his Liber Gommorrhianus, which might as well be contemporary with us in its exposure of the horrible crimes within the Church, which followed from a relaxation of her teachings. Pederast priests and the rest of it; it was all there in the eleventh century.

And with all that, the “progressive” abandonment of real and serious penance, without which “mercy” becomes an empty casque. In this “Year of Mercy” we must begin recovering our hold on the thing itself; start recovering the knowledge that “mercy” is not a quick fix or a season pass or a free lunch. For the theological depth of this thing, Mercy, cannot be lightly skirted or jumped. It goes to the bottom of the reality on whose surface we are ignorantly (and dangerously) playing.


The important thing to understand is only that today’s Saint lived at another nadir of the Church’s fortunes. But that is only background to his works, including his voluminous writings, which fill two thick volumes of Migne’s Patrologia Latina (144 and 145). He was a superb writer of the Latin language, worth studying as a model rhetor, to get some idea of the living range and genius of ecclesiastical Latin, in its strict logic, and often poetic precision and concision. All of his works should be available in English, but are not. All of us should seek facility in Latin, to remedy this defect.

A zealous “reformer” — in the sense of reconstruction and restoration — and yet for all his learning, Peter Damian could be half-reasonably described as an “anti-intellectual.” One of his tasks was to show how empty is philosophy, when it is indulged as an end in itself. Earlier than al-Ghazali — arguably the greatest of the (mostly) Persian thinkers in the Islamic Golden Age, whose greatest work, On the Incoherence of the Philosophers, bore its best fruit in the Christian West — Peter Damian was working in anticipation. Hence: Doctor as well as Saint of the Church, as Leo XIII affirmed.

His long letter, number 119, De divina omnipotentia, addressed to the abbot of Monte Cassino in 1065, bears careful scrutiny. It began as an after-dinner topic in the dolce that followed a meal he shared there; the monks were discussing a reading they had just heard in the refectory.

This work has been recklessly misrepresented, by undue focus on only one of its paragraphs, which offers a bold, even mischievous paradox. Peter Damian answers confidently in the affirmative, to the question whether God can restore the virginity of a woman, both physically and, as it were, metaphysically. This seems to involve a violation of the principle of non-contradiction, for surely it would require changing an event in the past. Peter Damian’s purpose is to show that it would not; but to get this, one must continue reading. Moreover, in tackling this apparent contradiction, we will gain a theological insight that “dialectics” or philosophy could not have provided; yet which can be traced back through reason, and shown to be self-consistent.

God cannot lie, cannot give the lie; cannot contradict Himself; cannot take back today what He allowed yesterday; can do only good; and His omnipotence actually requires this. He who is Being prior to all beings, cannot participate in non-being, or the denial of His own Being. Something, for that matter, can never participate in the Nothingness at the root of all evil. But a philosophy that is not in the service of theology, and thus in acknowledgement of Revelation, will never grasp this; will always miss the point.

In this event: philosophy alone will not grasp that God could perform the miracle that restores the physical condition of virginity; that He could perform the miracle that retrieves the penitent soul of a grievous sinner from the consequences of her unalterable past.

Christ did not come to make Adam’s fall unhappen. He came because it happened. Strangely, in the bottomless felix culpa, Adam “asked” for Christ to come; unknowingly “begged for it to happen.”

We miss this for the very reason that we have placed Time above God in our comprehension of the universe, and thus mistaken what is “true enough” in its way, for the Truth that is higher. We have, in other words, assigned to God an “omnipotence” that falls short of His actual Omnipotence.

We are, with Peter Damian, here on the road from Aristotle, through Saint Augustine, to Saint Thomas Aquinas who will come later — in which philosophy itself is hardly suppressed or retroactively changed, but confidently redirected; put to its proper use in the service of our Redemption, and thus itself in a manner of speaking, redeemed. This is just what, in that other tradition, al-Ghazali was doing in retrieving the legacy of Avicenna. He was not trying to suppress all philosophy, any more than Plato was trying to suppress all art. He was restoring it to life by providing its proper context and environment: the air in which it could breathe again.

For we have lost our way through the very swamp that once we drained. We can hardly breathe in its miasmatas. We need to find our way out to an elevated place where we can, once again, safely fill our whole lungs; and dry off under the Sun of Justice.

Don’t leave

I have received more despairing letters from Catholics (and aspiring Catholics) this last week or so — since the Holy Father went to Mexico, and to Cuba again — than ever before. Many of these are livid with anger, and let me say I understand it. The sense of betrayal is one I share, not only with the Ukrainian Catholics. A couple of the letters were particularly distressing, because they were from persons who said I had “lured” them across the Tiber, and now they would “move on.” I find this kind of thing heart-rending.

One tries to write to people individually. Yet there are many more, not in correspondence. So let me reply to them, too, “from the heart,” if I may mean that hackneyed saying.

Context is required. The catastrophe of “the Spirit of Vatican II” precedes in time the current catastrophe, in which the faith of serious Catholics is being seriously tested. And there is, I would insist, a history before that in which the evil of Modernism was infiltrating the Church. Too much is blamed on our current Holy Father, whose election was, according to me, much more a symptom than a cause. To comprehend the crisis in the Church, we must be patient enough to look over centuries.

Righteous indignation will have its place. Then pause. The Fathers and the Doctors of the Church have expounded the suitable use for anger, short of Wrath. It must goad us beyond indulgent emotion.

Christ Himself put the limits upon it. Read e.g. First Peter, especially chapter two, and Ephesians, especially chapter four, and every word of four Gospels, before you allow your anger to blind you.

Before giving in to this anger, we must ask ourselves at least the practical question, What is it we hope to achieve? If there is nothing we can do, beyond our own vicinity, it follows that we must channel our anger to some lesser, but possible, good purpose.

Those who remain in communion with the Church founded by Christ, must do their best to acquaint themselves with her true teaching, from the Deposit of Faith, and defend that, in defiance of any contradiction. (Do not settle for a flip understanding; keep digging.) They should encourage each other, in Love, to hold the ground that Satan is assailing. Note that I named Satan, not some passing bishop.

Long before I was received into this Church, myself, I was well acquainted with the destructive “progress” of “liberalism” within her. I do not think I was naïve when I joined. I was tremendously encouraged by the papacies of Saint John Paul II, and beloved Benedict XVI, two extraordinary popes. It seemed that the crisis was being carefully addressed; now it seems that it was worse than even they imagined. Not only do we have a bad pope — playing for applause, to a world in which hard Catholic Truth isn’t going to win it — but the possibility that the next will be worse. For we have bad cardinals, too (though also some very impressive). We need not play the (typically modern) Pollyanna.

But there is no place for despair, either; and truly, no room to feel sorry for ourselves. Despair is a sin, for a start. True despair — the wilful abandonment of all hope in salvation — is a mortal sin. Yet many lesser forms of “desolation” lead unto that hell-gate, and here we are discussing one of the principal highways. We must remember that we have had worse popes, and even worse times in Church history. And that the Church can be righted, even through weak men and women who refuse to abandon her in her need.

Nor forget that the fire is being rekindled in places and ways that we overlook: in Africa, in China, and in obscure corners even of America and Europe. Even for this world it may be foolish to despair, and in the view over history it may be, that this was actually an age of recovery.

It could be the age of recovery in gentle reader’s heart.

Nor forget that the Holy Spirit is not only immanent, but also infinitely beyond us. It may be that catastrophes must happen; that these human evils will be used for a Good that we could never foresee; just as the mistakes in our own lives have opened gates for us. On this view, we cannot know even what is happening now, when we think we are on top of the news. For the news is, usually, totally misleading.

“Don’t let the bastards drive you out of the Church.”

The Enemy wants you to despair. He wants you to wander; to get you alone. He wants to exploit your anger. He wants you to leave: “Go! Go!” You have no idea how much he hates you.

Don’t! — if only for the sake of your own immortal soul. Do not participate in schism. Through the centuries it has done no good. Do not think that because things are bad here, they will be better at some more exotic location, where different mistakes are being made. Do not, at any level, simply assume. Faith is not grounded on assumptions.

Should the world be reduced to only one Catholic, be ready to answer: “Lord, I am here!”

And is it yet so bad?

Those who hesitate to be received, must remember it is the Catholic Church they are refusing — not the “church of Francis” or whatever. In a few years he will be gone, in a few more his successor gone, and I think we may reasonably expect that in a few more still, the liberal innovations will be gone, too: because they are unsustainable. Men and women, called to Christ, with their very lives on the line, will not be sustained by such pabulum.

The Founder and Head of Our Church is not some person in Rome; it was not even the (rather fallible) Saint Peter. It was and remains Jesus of Nazareth. Those in Rome are merely custodians — human, for better and for worse.

Our allegiance is to Christ, and it must not be altered because clowns attempt to speak for Him.

Do not sacrifice what is immortal, for what is merely passing. Do not cut and run from the fight. It will not bring you peace; it can never bring the peace which passeth all understanding.

Whatever may happen: Keep the Faith.

The tale of Mattie

Bad David: I truly failed to keep up and foster the fairly good training in classical (and modern) languages with which I was blessed in childhood; and with the passage of the lazy years, have become ever more dependent on my halting English as a medium of thought. This helps account for my shallowness and provincialism, mentioned by several discerning readers.

And yet I travelled the world, or at least accessible Eurasia. Compare me to an old schoolmate who only once overstepped the boundary of his native Ontario township. He kept the training up, writing as well as reading in Latin, for instance; for one must write in a language to read it with understanding. Thus he turned out rather more cosmopolitan.

Were we delivered to ancient Rome by some time machine, I’d be depending on him to give taxi directions.

Or should we go back only to old Weimar (I’d hope a little ahead of Napoleon’s “spoon guards”), not I but he would have to forge our letter of introduction to Goethe. I’d only be ogling his mistress, and trying to look smart.

But of course my old friend would hardly agree to step into the time machine in the first place. When last checked up with in a small-town tavern, I found his view of technology even darker than mine.

The like I have seen many times in my travels: that the learned are seldom in their nature tourist, though some have been travellers. The life of the mind, the life of books and poetry, of art and music, is a much broader thing than a life on the run. Perhaps I should be more thankful to God that my circumstances combined to ground me, more than a decade ago; leaving me in this mountain hut, or rather, high-rise apartment with a view of the sunsets over Greater Parkdale. And trying to catch up with everything I’ve missed.

Since, I have learnt that travel is unnecessary.


A decade has also passed since my poor parents were bundled (at their own wish) into “old folk” accommodations, and the contents of their house were dispersed. I became the quick inheritor of what could be grabbed of papa’s “stuff.” At intervals since, I have been whittling down to what seems most worth keeping, in light of the remorseless movement of time. In the end, one cannot carry so much as a satchel, into the Land where all are going.

Much of the bulk is already given to schools, libraries, relatives and others. Papa became, at about my age when his own father died, the inheritor of the previous generation of stuff — mostly books and papers — and an adept of genealogy on both his and my mama’s side. I cannot bring myself, for instance — and notwithstanding my disapproval of photography — to “dispose of” old glass negatives and silver chloride prints going well back into the Victorian era. I’ve been trying to re-organize what papa once had organized well; it all went to hell during his last move.

Photos are good, in one way. Even through sometimes rather stiff poses, one can see what one’s predecessors looked like; so that upon reading old letters and documents they begin to move. There were many vague old family stories I heard, and now they come into focus. These people were my own flesh and blood; sometimes I almost hear their voices. I find a portrait of a man who died a century ago. It is captionless. But immediately, I know who he is.

Or another dead for, lo, rather more than a hundred. Who is buried in some place called Bruce Mines, which eventually ran out of copper. But even before that, there was flooding and a cave-in (1876), and my relatives moved on. Here is a letter of one who went back, at the beginning of the last century, and found Bruce Mines the ghost of a ghost town. Today, says Internet, there is a village again, with a liquor store, motel, and short-order restaurant, for motorists along Highway 17; but for an interim there was nothing. My people are thus only to be found one layer down; a generation later, no grave could be found.

That was one branch; there were these various other branches, and fate pushed them all over the continent. Well into that last (twentieth) century, most lived in log cabins.

My great grandpa and great grandma died in one, in the wilds north of Edmonton, Alberta, before the last World War; two of my great uncles with their wives in the same “Rochester,” well after. I have a Waltham pocket watch that came down to me from one of them. And a note, to me, never previously delivered, from one whom I never met. Yet he writes as if he knows me. Great Uncle Ross apologizes for foolishly having had the innards replaced in the 1920s; since when the thing has never worked properly. Mechanical standards, he notes, have been in continuous decline, since the watch was made in Massachusetts in the 1850s. It had worked fine when he carried it across Normandy, with the Canadian Field Artillery during the Great War.

Another branch went off to Nebraska; we never heard from them again. Many crossed the border, or crossed back: you didn’t need a passport in those days, and there were no tax returns to file. The rails did not run to some of the places these people were going. They were migrants who had heard that there was “freedom” out West, and that a man could earn a living from honest work, pulling up the trees on, say, twenty acres. Yet they were not entirely “hicks”: they went out into the wilderness with their Bibles and their Shakespeares (to say nothing of their guns), as little beacons of civilization; and did what they had to do to survive.


And the stargate opens on the stories I could tell you: of Martha (“Mattie”) Warren, for example, farmed out in childhood to another house after her dad John (1811–61) had died in wretched poverty. He’d been building a stone bridge over a creek near Zanesville, Ohio; died coughing his guts out from some stone-dust lung disease. (His clients had neglected to pay him; a bank had foreclosed on everything he owned.) The family this Mattie was lodged with then up and flit town, leaving no word of where they had taken “that very cheerful little body,” then three years old. Her mother and siblings searched for her, not giving up through a score of years, following any lead with letters and newspaper advertisements. (Kindly publishers would run these for free.) “Lost girl” was the title, wherever they appeared.

Twenty-three years pass. The advertisements still ran, sometimes, and by a happy coincidence the grown woman, now “Mattie Stewart,” saw one of them in Springfield, Illinois. She’d been told she was an orphan, but putting everything together, realized that she was not. Understandably, she had to see her mother, and was well-placed to set out right away.

Her husband, the estimable J.K. Stewart, was a railwayman, with stocks. Mattie was very beautiful; he was uxorious. On their journey to Canada — to Derby Township, Ontario, where now lived her aging mother, no longer Mrs Warren but Eliza Christie by remarriage — he had the train stopped. This was because Mattie was admiring the wildflowers in a passing field. So while the train waited, he went out in the meadow to assemble a bouquet.

They’d tracked down Eliza to this Anthony Farm, where she now lived with this Captain Christie (more stories there), in the usual small log house. They arrived at Owen Sound, hiring coach and horses for the muddy sideroad drive. And suddenly there they were, in their city clothing and extravagant hats, standing by Eliza’s door.

The mother did not recognize her little girl. It took some explaining. Then Eliza shrieked a shriek that her son would always remember.

Mattie would be my great-great-great aunt. Beautiful and wealthy: I had already heard that from my grandpa, long ago. Alas, no picture of her may be found in my gallery. By reputation, I had somehow gathered, she was badly spoilt by her rich fool of a husband. According to my papa’s chart: “Died childless in 1884.” It all fits together.

Better not to travel, except by necessity; and to die poor.

Against masochism

My priest — well, I think of him as mine, though actually I share him with some other people — has that wonderful gift for catching a person by surprise. This shows to best effect when that person — in this case, moi — has just said something stupid.

I was reflecting upon my unworthiness for Lent, and noted that I actually like beans (of various kinds and in various preparations) on rice. Also, little fishes from little tins, mooshed in rice. Also, — it was my latest example — aloo methi, with rice. (That is, potatoes chopped into fenugreek leaves, with some onion and tomato pulp and crushed cashews and curry spices, fried in bran or vegetable oil.) Or with naan, instead of rice. And a modest tumbler of, say, coconut water, to wash it down. Or some grapefruit juice, which I also adore.

Of course, in Lent there could easily be too much of a good thing. The meal must fit in one’s lenten bowl, and not spill over. The “seconds” go back in the fridge. Though in my case, I need the help of the angels to walk me back there. (And sometimes, they are busy.)

I love the monastic simplicity: just the bowl, the spoon, and the tumbler. The sight of these three things fills me with peace. And nothing improves the appetite like hunger, which can be a cleanser in itself. One can be made happy by such things.

So here I was saying to the priest that I enjoy Lent; that surely there is sin in it somewhere. What should I do, cut the fenugreek? the cumin? (The cashews I’d already resolved to omit.)

My train of self-regarding thought was brought to a stop at this point:

“That is not a sin, David. That is good luck.”

He was being gentle. He wasn’t shouting “Jansenist!” at me, the way he does sometimes. He went on to explain that Lent is not a celebration of masochism. It is fast, abstinence — obedience, to a glorious end.

Should I happen to like it, bully for me.

I used to dread Lent, because I would expect it to be painful. I still rather dread having to be extra charitable; or even just polite. I am not, after all, a very nice person. True charity makes one accept things, that one may be loath to accept. It makes one part with things, that one would rather keep; and to restrain in some measure one’s eyes, one’s lips, and the inflection of one’s nose. The abstinence from doing what is hateful — even on some days a complete fast — is what I find oppressive. It goes against my nature, my inner Adam, my “preferential option” for being a shit.

“Lord, if you don’t mind, I would rather cut even the potatoes.”

Now, there are good people who, it seems to me, are charitable by nature; glad in their charity, and delighted to give more. My papa was a bit like that; I could never understand it. Had he only been Catholic, he might have welcomed Lent. And I’ve met others even more, by a mysterious grace, given to confoundingly saintly behaviour.

Should they cut back on charity because they enjoy it?

Out with you

Among my favourite potsherds from the ancient world are the ostraka of the Athenians. Although the surface may be inscribed only with one name, and that long forgotten, there is something exhilarating about them. Once, I held one in my hand.

Shards of earthenware, flakes of limestone, and other materials with messages written on them are a commonplace of archaeological sites throughout the Near East — from the age when papyrus was available, but too expensive for use as scrap paper. For which reason, we get a higher class of messaging from the deep past on that papyrus: things meant to be permanent.

On the ostraka we might get instead a simple prayer or invocation; an adage; a snippet from the lyrics of a song; a shopping list; a medical prescription; a curse or blessing, or magical spell; a desperate appeal for money; or a rude little caricature, very portable and perhaps intended to find its way to its subject. A hundred and one household uses. Such short notes improve in value after centuries of aging, and what they show, along with much else, is that the deadly sins practised today have always been popular.

There are papyrus fragments, too, marvellously preserved in the dry Egyptian sands. I have books up here in the High Doganate, transcribed from the better bits and pieces that floated up, including fragments of classical poetry and very high-class prose. An elitist myself, I am prone to collect such documentation of a time long ago and far, far away; and to weep for what was lost from the once grand private and public libraries. But this is not what I am thinking of, at this moment. For all the originals may be consulted in Heaven; and really it is just a question of getting there.

Still there is the thrill of holding an ostrakon in one’s hand, from old Athens that was full of sin, but also of a few brilliant ideas. For a moment, time out of mind, one queues in the Agora, to hand one’s fragmentary transient write-in ballot over to the counters.

For these were the ballots from the old Athenian democracy — that went the way our “representative” imitations of it are now going — but was in its own time small and personal, like something from a valley in the Swiss Alps.

Voting, prior to post-modernity, was always and everywhere restricted to a relatively small, aristocratic or at least upper-middle class of propertied free males, and thus carried the possibility its members would know each other; sometimes, know each other too well. In retrospect it seems a better idea than great masses of the lower classes, lacking charm or style, forming “yuge” voting blocks like virtual mobs, and ever threatening to descend into real ones. But everything — absolutely everything including the best-governed states — winds up on the trash heap of history. And who is to say there will always be archaeologists?

No, the potsherds that amuse me most carry the names of candidates for Ostracism. From time to time the “elite” of Athenians would pick someone to be exiled for a decade or so. Not hanged, not drawn, not quartered — not even merely blinded in the more humane Byzantine manner — but only invited to live abroad for a while. It was an honourable fate, by our modern standards. It showed people could at least spell your name; and that you had achieved your fifteen minutes of infamy in the public mind. Of course there was the death penalty, if the winner tried to return before his time was up. Meanwhile, he had ten days to get out of town.

It was about this time of year, in the old Athenian Assembly. Full citizens would vote on whether to hold another Ostracism. If they did, it was probable that they already had at least one promising candidate. Plutarch tells us a quorum of six thousand was required, to vote for having this vote; and another minimum of votes to win if it was held, a couple of months later. It was a way to send someone like “The Donald” on his way.

He could keep his hotels and office blocks, and get them back on his return; or whatever else he happened to own before departure. It was thus not an opportunity for envious, punitive taxation. But God be praised, there might be one less potential tyrant, or bogeyman to deal with, in the interval of his absence, after he had been sent off “to make Athens great again” — in Phrygia, or wherever. Meanwhile, his irritating supporters would have time to cool their heads; and his opponents would be spared the inconvenience and risk of arranging an assassination.

Not a bad idea at all, at all; but like so many other fairly good ideas, it would not work in an “advanced modern democracy.” For in no time, with the help of computers, we’d be holding instant Ostracisms every day. And this would only lead to fresh refugee crises.

Lent makes us smarter

Maimonides, quoting Alexander of Aphrodisias (who was commenting on Aristotle) says there are three significant causes of human ignorance; then adds a fourth. This is in chapter 31 of the first part of the Guide to the Perplexed, in my old Friedlander translation.

Arrogance and vainglory lead the list. We are too full of ourselves to fit any new thing into our gorged heads; too cocky to see what is outside us; and indifferent to the movement that would lead us out. In many other ways gentle reader could supply for himself, and probably from self-experience, we are defeated by our own swagger.

Second, the subject itself will prove more subtle, deeper and more difficult than we imagined, so that when we come to examine it we are overwhelmed. Failures of training and education come into this: we don’t know where to start, and have not acquired the equipment to continue. Fools are those, who come to the battle naked.

Only third need we consider our animal limitations. Our own native freedom from information and want of capacity prevents us from comprehending even what is perfectly comprehensible. Our native sloth comes into this, to my mind; by which I mean not sinful acedia, but the slowness of wit that makes anything hard for us to follow, when finally we come round to trying. We are stupid like that; God did not endow us all with superior candlepower.

Each category of foolishness of course redounds on each other, and by combination we may square or cube the effect of forms of ignorance that were more modest in isolation.

Maimonides adds custom and habit to this Aristotelian list. He illustrates this with an unfortunate attack on rural people, which makes me fear he has liberal tendencies. The villager is used to his privations; he does not desire the pleasures of city life because he does not know what they are; but hardly through vainglory. He is accustomed from youth to play the hick, to take almost anything over-literally; for instance to take God as if He were one of His own creatures.

Yet big-city propagandists for atheism (Richard Dawkins provides an especially juicy example) tend to display exactly this sort of supposed village idiocy.

Here the later Sephardic philosopher Falaquera (a man of the thirteenth century) is more pointed. He extends the critique of this peasant gormlessness specifically to scientists never exposed to religion or philosophy, and thus prey to a materialism that would be, on a little thought, self-refuting. Whereas, the peasant has at least some chance of encountering a good rabbi.

Perhaps the twelfth-century Maimonides thought he had already anticipated that, in previous remarks about the kind of shmendrick who disputes what has been demonstrably proved. “Thus you find men who deny the spherical form of the Earth, or the circular path in which the stars move.” To his mind, such characters, who might also confuse God with the image of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, are not worth considering. I must say I find this a blindness on his part, for it is only a variation on the peasant kind of ignorance.

Now, I would invite gentle reader to consider each of these four sources of ignorance (which I have expounded in my own way) in light of the traditional, conventional Lenten practices of Holy Church.

They begin from the bottom by breaking up habit; catching us when we reach for things we would normally consume without thinking, when we remember that we have vowed to avoid them for forty days. This in turn quickens our apprehension of matters we are not in the habit of considering. We begin to realize that what seemed simple and easy is actually rather simple and hard. Our repeated failures provide a cure for the vanities in which we usually luxuriate. The often painful discovery that we are not great, but small, feeds our humility at the foot of wisdom.

And yet, in the memory of Our Lord, we need not be defeated. The whole experience, through seven weeks, is a course of setbacks; and stands, with Jesus, in that wilderness where he confronted the temptations of the Devil, directly. We pick ourselves up from the dust, after each slip; and our better angel tells us to confess it, and that we must resume trying.

Our bodies, but also our minds, are in His boot camp through this period, repeated once a year. Sincerely engaged, we cannot help but come out of it a little smarter than we were, going in.


I had the strangest dream, that Justice Scalia had died. As the dream occurred the night after news reports of his death, I may have been influenced by them. Often my dreams are clairvoyant in that way.

Last June, speaking with beloved Cardinal Burke in Ottawa (our greatest living canon lawyer), I asked for an opinion on Justice Scalia. It turned out the two of them were friends; not surprising. They shared an attachment to the Latin Mass, especially in the Usus Antiquior — Scalia, for instance, though a busy man throughout his life, often driving long distances with his family of a Sunday to attend the nearest available. Too, they shared great respect for legal traditions — both Roman and American — being deeply learned in each, respectively, but neither unfamiliar with the other. His Eminence mentioned, when asked, that they did not agree on everything; that Justice Scalia, while admirably originalist with respect to the USA Constitution, was prone to overlook the larger conditions of its existence.

Not only must we ask, before we start, what the authors of those laws plainly meant by their language, in the context of their era and in the genius of the language itself. To fully understand them, we must hear the resonations of more ancient legal concepts, from the Common Law back to Roman Law; of the philosophers from earlier modern periods, back through thirteenth-century Padua and before; of thinking and “discoveries” in natural law from Christian back through Hebraic, and in the many universal echoes of the same. One must move backwards in order to get a fuller view.

To look on Law in this way is to be more than a scholar, capable of better understanding. It is to be made modest and humble and cautious and conservative and thus: appreciative of distinctions between what positive law can accomplish, and what it cannot. It is to put positive written law in its right place, as the best effort of fallible men; men who may be wise, but may instead be narrow and headstrong; shallow, intemperate, even vicious; and terribly impatient, as if the world relied only on them.

Bad law often triumphs over good, and worse over better interpretations. This is why Justice Scalia so readily told his colleagues on the high Washington bench that they should acknowledge their mistakes, and the mistakes of their predecessors, and explain publicly why they were mistakes. Though confined himself to positive law in a revolutionary tradition, he would instead step beyond it in brilliant analogies and sharp logical thrusts.

Like all the greatest judges of whom I am aware, Scalia’s judgments were readable, his reasonings clear, and his dissents especially exhilarating. No mouse, he did not shy from delicious sarcasm, and hilarious parody of his own colleagues, of whom, currently, at least four are idiots. But this strictly in a professional capacity, where he would have no friends. Socially, among his human fellows, he was thoughtful kind and generous; and even towards the idiots, sunny and forbearing.

The great judges do not tolerate the hairsplit jargon and professorial bafflegab behind which mediocrities hide what is specious. Nor will they descend into the cheap bathos and sentimentality with which the “reformers” play to the mob. They are not seeking personal popularity, but justice in Truth. And where it can be found it requires a trumpet, singing crisp notes.

I loved the man; he was quite lovable. A good Catholic, with an impressive courageous wife, and nine children by what he called “Vatican roulette.” (Thirty-six grandchildren.) All turned out well. One of them is a priest, on whose prayers for his father we may depend. In my dream the good judge was ascending to the Judge of all judges, in Heaven.

Against scheduling

Oh, dear. Yesterday once again I filed a longish Idlepost which I returned to in the night, making it longer still in the hope of clarity. Gentle readers complain whenever I do this. It is not in the spirit of idleness, after all, and I’m sure my beloved Kenko, author of the original Tsurezuregusa (“Essays in Idleness,” or more exactly, “The With-nothing-better-to-do Book”), is sneering at me from his Buddhist heaven. Neither is daily posting, for that matter, consistent with this spirit, though it is quite consistent with the demands of contemporary blogging.

Yoshida no Kaneyoshi (the original name of that fourteenth-century Japanese recluse) had a better plan. He would splash down some thought with his brush on whatever paper came to hand, then paste it on the wall of his cottage in the mountains. His “essays” were in no particular order. After his death, this wallpaper was transcribed, starting from a doorpost.

I have his book, here, which I personally rebound (many years ago): an English translation by Donald Keene, with many useful explanatory notes.

“How could anyone have removed all the hollyhock leaves, when it was sad enough that they should wither of themselves?”

What a fine sentiment I discover upon reopening it.

For the rest, I do not know which essays to quote, I should like to quote them all. But that would not be in the correct spirit. It is enough to read one or two at a sitting. Better yet, not to read but to remember, and paraphrase even when the book is in your hand:

“Although I am now free of entanglements, there are some things I’d be sorry to give up. The beauty of the sky.”

Such admirable dicta are varied with good anecdotes and short memoirs. These include excellent advice Kenko recalls from great experts and high priests. For example, he quotes a backgammon champion on how to win at that game. “Do not try to win, you will lose.” Instead, in each move, study the board and, “try to lose more slowly.”

Or from the High Priest, Honen, on how to get to Heaven:

“Sometimes as I am saying the nembutsu I am seized by drowsiness and I neglect my devotions. How can I overcome this obstacle?” he is asked.

The priest replies, “Say the nembutsu as long as you are awake.”

Another of his penitents is uncertain that he will go to Heaven, and is told that it is indeed quite uncertain. But then the priest adds: “Even if you have doubts, you will go to Heaven, provided that you say the nembutsu.”

I love Kenko’s contradictions, for example his diatribe one day against men who get married; and on another, his defence of fatherhood, since only men with children can have any feelings. Too, he provides an invigorating catalogue of things that are insufferable in social life, each of which has parallels in the Greater Parkdale Area. This includes his exasperation with people who may go to Hell, because they are always playing backgammon.

He condemns the “Four Great Crimes” as well (fornication, theft, murder, false witness), but more gently.


Though now I live up here in the mountains — or more precisely, up here in the High Doganate — I am not yet free of worldly entanglements. There are rough days, for instance, when I simply have to make enough money to buy food and pay rent. It is most inconvenient. I would rather have a large pension, but there is none in view.

I began writing my own Tsurezuregusa every day, about four hundred and fifty Idleposts ago. They are not very good, as I am reminded whenever I look over old ones. There would be more than seven hundred of these postings altogether by now — about the length of The Tale of Genji, or of, À la recherche du temps perdu — had I not quietly deleted a few dozen of the worst. (Compare Kenko, who covered his walls with only two hundred and forty-three.) Mendicant that I am, kind donors have sent me gifts in the proportion of nearly three cents per word. I notice, however, that this is declining.

I will continue writing my pieces, almost every day, because I have nothing better to do. But I think “every day” is too ambitious. I should skip some days, without explanation, especially during Lent.

Gödel & Lemaître

My Chief Irish Veterinary Correspondent put it most succinctly: “Didn’t Gödel drive a stake through the heart of the concept of a ‘Theory of Everything’?” (See yesterday.) This is also my understanding: that the Austrian logician demonstrated in his two “incompleteness theorems,” published in 1931, why no such thing can work. But we are dealing today with the kind of zombie that doesn’t notice when a stake has been driven through its heart.

Let me try briefly to review both ends of that sharp stick.

Gödel’s first theorem proved that any formal system of axioms subtle and complex enough to describe even so apparently straightforward a thing as a set of numbers must contain at least one “undecidable” statement, such that even if we are certain that statement is true, the system can’t prove it. It must therefore be logically “incomplete.”

And his second theorem was like unto it:

No one can prove, from inside any formal system, that it is self-consistent. Not, “some day,” not, “maybe we missed something,” not, “give us more time” — but can’t, won’t, jamais de la vie — and in the way you can’t be a man and a teapot at the same time.

Or put this another way (and there are many, many other ways to put it). Any logical account we may want to give of the totality of our wee, finite Universe (and we know darn well it is finite, today) requires a view from outside our Universe, that is indispensable to fully understand it.

Or consider: there will always be things that one knows to be true, but cannot be strictly proved, in logic; which rise, as it were, above the rational, in an ultimately demonstrable way; which present some (often beautiful) paradox.

It follows that the mathematician, the scientist, even the engineer and technologist, and everybody else, must work on blind faith, even within their own trades. And what is reasonable is not always rational: merely consistent with reason. Blind spots must necessarily remain, for us finite creatures. What we know by common sense is thus affirmed at the highest available rational level: that we cannot know everything.

True, Gödel’s “proofs” require some brains to understand. But they also take some brains to misunderstand: to defy something that comes down, in the end, to the Law of Non-Contradiction. You cannot have your cake and eat it, too; you cannot be both A and not-A. Not even God can contradict this Law of Non-Contradiction, and anyway wouldn’t try. He never contradicts Himself because (unlike other gods) He never has to.

It was this theological insight that made Christianity the guide to empirical science: that God is self-consistent, that His deeds will always finally make sense; that although God is far beyond human reason, He has from every direction left a trail of divine light.

And note this paradox: that the condition for the nurture and mastery and growth of empirical science, was blind faith. That, among other things, God is no trickster. He is immanent, and transcendent, but distinct from his own Creation — all such things as we can know, by faith.

So to explain the Universe, the set of all sets, no matter how big it happens to be — and even if it includes a bubble bath of “multiverses” — we must step outside the Whole Thing. And this would be necessary, no matter which bubble we might happen to be locked inside.

Gödel also developed, unsurprisingly, a version of Anselm’s cosmological argument for the existence of God, expressed in slam-dunk post-Euclidean logic, that was theist like Leibniz and not polytheist like Spinoza. And yes, he was extremely familiar with Kant’s naïve attempt at refutation. (Kant, who never read mediaeval philosophy, did not actually understand Anselm’s argument, let alone the improvement on it by Thomas Aquinas.)

I’m acquainted with raw, drooling ignorance in myself. I’m surprised to find it institutionalized today, and frequently enforced, though perhaps only because I am at heart a man of the thirteenth century (like Gödel, 1906–78), and thus perhaps too easily repugned of smug atheist fools.

Einstein, incidentally, once said he only worked at Princeton so he could have the opportunity to take walks with Gödel. They often went on long ones.


Now let us return over the sea, to the (once) Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium, and to Monsignor Georges Lemaître (1894–1966). About the same time the young Gödel was formulating his incompleteness theorems as a doctoral dissertation at Vienna, or a few years before, Lemaître was playing with Einstein’s field equations of relativity, and realizing a funny little thing. The Universe is not static. It is expanding. He did everything for which Edwin Hubble is now credited by the pop science writers, except, he did it before Hubble. And then he did an even better thing: he accounted for it.

Lemaître is the true and only author of the “Big Bang” hypothesis, which in wake of yesterday’s “gravity wave” announcement is once more confirmed to be at the heart of all astrophysics. The priest himself called it the hypothesis of the Cosmic Egg: that our universe began as a “primaeval atom”: an extremely small fraction of the radius of a proton which, oddly enough, blew out to its present, rather larger size.

For this he was ignored, or mocked. The expression “Big Bang” was itself coined by the atheist Fred Hoyle to make fun of it, and has stuck because it still appeals to the craving of materialists for a static Universe, infinite in scale. They can’t handle something that began; there must be something before that “just happened,” to no good end, for no good reason, in the infinite regression of a hall of mirrors. They must absolutely insist on the meaninglessness of it all; a succession of nothings. For otherwise they must face down the very God that they have been avoiding.

But that Cosmic Egg was quite a something; quite a nuanced, profound something; and rather consequential, as we have come to see. For it carried the possibility of our own biological existence.

The primaeval atom; the egg; the Seed, as I think of it myself, implanted in the soil of the Holy Spirit. Which burst forth in a million stars; in a million million million of them. I can understand this in a way consistent with both reason and faith; I cannot understand it in a way consistent with a long yawn. As Einstein said (to much subsequent ridicule), “God does not play dice with the universe.” The Maker of that Seed knew what He was doing; this certainly is what Georges Lemaître understood.

I’ve mentioned Lemaître in Idleposts before (there’s a search function in this website, y’know); he is perhaps my biggest modern scientific hero, after Pierre Duhem. As other truly penetrating intellects, he cannot be properly appreciated by the post-modern mind, which accepts only Prometheans as heroes — i.e. men who seem to stand against God in rebellion; tricksters angling to steal His fire, and repeat the sin of Adam. Whereas, Lemaître merely served God, with real distinction.

The hypothesis of the Cosmic Egg found the light of day in the same year of grace 1931 (as Gödel’s key publication). And like Gödel, Lemaître stood modestly, yet also bravely athwart the crass metaphysical assumptions of “modernity.” It wasn’t his egg that was so provocative, in itself. Rather, it was what the egg said.

It said that our Universe is finite. Generations of the cleverest scientific minds had taken material infinitude for granted. It was necessary to all their thinking: an infinite amount of space and time in which anything we see could have gradually “evolved,” like Darwin’s beasts, by pure happenstance at their infinite leisure.

Cut the time-line short and we are dealing with “miracles” instead — with things that happen not slowly but suddenly, while casually ignoring all our human expectations. And these not small things, either.

Well, sometimes you just have to tough it out. There is currently no way home to an infinite Universe, and no way foreseeable. The “multiverse” conjecture does not get us there, it only displaces the question — kicks it a little farther down the road. Human reason can run, but it cannot hide: sooner or later it is staring once again at the inescapable, ineluctable, Fact of God.

Einstein himself was at first scandalized, by Lemaître’s hypothesis, when Eddington (who’d been among Lemaître’s teachers, and thought him the brightest student he’d ever had) brought it to his attention. “Your math is correct, but your physics is abominable,” Einstein told the priest.

But within a couple of years he had come around, and realized that his own unspoken assumption of a static, infinite Universe was unsustainable. Indeed he came to call that Cosmic Egg “the most beautiful thing” he’d ever seen. Other fine minds likewise came around, though as I recall, by the 1960s, some were still fighting, still defending the body that was dead in the cosmic water.

Since the 1990s, we have known that the Universe is not only expanding, but accelerating outward. It is icing on old Lemaître’s cake. We have also come to realize there are irregularities in the rate at which the stars recede; that there are mysterious Great Attractors scattered here and there through intergalactic space. Indeed, yesterday’s formal announcement of the demonstration of “gravity waves” lets us hope for insights into these irregularities.

Beyond those we continue to find, Horatio, that there are “more things in Heaven and Earth.” Our choice is to take this with awe; or with the deathly grin of those whose faith is not in God, but in their glib, sorry, mechanistic contraptions — in a scientism that real science continues to kick away.