Essays in Idleness


Norham Castle (sunrise)

Castles are very useful things, or were until recently. They are built especially at frontier locations, and their purpose is to attract the enemy, and spite him into attacking them. This spares the civil population from a great deal of injury, loss, and trouble, for the enemy will take it out on the castle, and in doing so leave the people alone. You see, in the old days, before the modern inventions of Total War, it was thought disgraceful to slaughter non-combatants, or otherwise mess with their affairs. But that was merely a negative consideration: something the good sport will avoid. Positive charity required that things like castles be erected and maintained, so the enemy could have something to do with all his weapons.

Norham Castle, or what’s left of it, is right up there on the Scottish border, in Northumberland. The Scots took it many times, starting under King David I (after whom I am named). The English kept taking it back. It was first conceived towards the end of the eleventh century, and for some stretches in the twelfth and thereafter, would change sides every couple of years. Of course, cattle would also change sides fairly often, the Scots omitting to remember that the English cattle did not belong to them, the English vice versa, and so forth. This would certainly inconvenience the civil population, but what can I say? No war is perfect. But cattle being a good, except to vegans, it is well that at least some people should have the use of them.

Now, as gentle reader may have guessed, this evening’s little essay is on painting. I have before me as I write a reproduction of John Mallord William Turner’s late prismatic and shimmering oil, depicting Norham Castle in the light of sunrise. Every Turner enthusiast will know immediately to which painting I refer. (Here it is.) I used to visit it frequently in the Tate, in my youth, when I lived just across the River Thames. Museum entry was free in those days, and the Tate was usually on my route into town. Other late Turners dazzled me, but this one more than any. I’d seen a glossy photo of it before, but when I first saw the original I was … stunned. (Perhaps there is a better word, but I couldn’t move.) Among other things, it was then I first realized the darker blues floating to left in the middle ground must represent something architectural: the blue of the sky reflecting from water onto dark stone in the sun’s shadow. (Later I discovered that this actually happens in nature.)

Was this painting abstract? Was it, as we often say glibly, a hundred years ahead of its time, prefiguring the colour field painters of New York in the 1950s? I love the mood colour juxtapositions of Mark Rothko (even though I dislike him), who also plays with light displacements, and cloud-cottonwool effects; but it is not the light of the sun he is presenting. Instead it is the light of the studio, and theory. Now, that is abstract, and fervidly intellectual. Turner would never have gone there, much as he might (grudgingly) have acknowledged Rothko’s genius as colourist. He would have condemned the works as unnatural, however, in a tone that insinuated immoral acts.

There is a cow, a little brown cow, to the fore of the Norham Castle painting, dabbed in a few deft strokes, or rather brush-pokes by the artist. This cow must be drinking from the Tweed — the sunlight has caught her in its reflections both from above and below. The animal participates in the sunrise, whether or not she can know; as everything in the composition participates in the vortex of the sunrise. But there is nothing deniable about that cow. She vindicates others disappearing into the river bank. She is unmistakeably real: a living, breathing, rather thirsty cow.

For half a century, Turner had been painting that castle in watercolours, whenever he found himself in those northern parts; for a quarter century, he had been fixated upon the effects of the rising sun, in that very scene. Now, in oil, and in a formal landscape, albeit exploded by all that he had learnt — and in all possible honest candour, three feet by four — he brought his thoughts together. Turner was a man who could think without words; remember without words. This is a very unusual gift. His paintings abound in non-literal imagery. (The literal and historical tends to slow him down, make him awkward.) He is a kind of holy innocent like that.

The painting imparts to the mind of the viewer (how to put this?) some appreciation of what is “real” about reality. It tells us, as it were, what the light “means.” And after we have taken it in; or rather, the more we can take in of that splendour — the better it explains inexplicable things. We begin to understand why light and colour were invented.

But that cow is the key to the whole thing.

It is what we are missing in art today, and what must somehow be restored, if we are to escape the vanity of artists’ boring little “statements”; their ideas about themselves. It is what Turner, Constable, Gainsborough, and innumerable Frenchmen and Italians, were mysteriously capable of seeing.

The cow.

Further instructions

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the pundits,” as Dick the Butcher says, except, I think he may have said “lawyers.” No matter, they are all alike.

The whole scene is instructive (Henry VI, part two, act IV, scene the second), as Jack Cade and his psychotic henchmen anticipate the politics of our time. Shakespeare, whose reactionary views are on display throughout the Histories, knew what all revolutionaries must do, to win over the drooling masses. They will, invariably, promise to abrogate the least convenient physical laws, and then deliver stuff for nothing. This is how they inflamed the peasant hordes from the French Revolution, through the Venezuelan: lighting them up with the prospect of good stuff for free, once the wealthy and high-born had been denuded. It is the underlying principle of every progressive party; and any who oppose them — by e.g. suggesting that ninety-nine into one won’t go — are demonized.

All parties today are essentially progressive, as all the mass media — both Left and Right. In the Punch and Judy show just concluded, south of the border, we again received the inheritance through Jack Cade (from the Serpent in the Garden). The promises of “Judy” having apparently expired, we now have the redistributive offerings of “Punch.”

One feels sorry for the little demons prancing about the streets of Portland, &c, in response to the election result. Thanks to the brainwashings administered to them in media and academia, they truly believe the slogans they are spouting. Fortunately for the rest of us, few of these people can function once they exit the “virtual reality” in which they are mentally encased. They cannot even organize riots effectively. It will be hard for the media to keep them stirred, given the alternatives of pot and fornication.

The late Leonard Cohen had something useful to report, after decades of counselling from some Buddhist bonze. He said his Master taught him how to stop whining. If California Zen could achieve that much for others, I’d be prepared to recommend it.

But I also feel sorry for the Trumpistas, such as those who have been littering my virtual inbox with their potty-mouth’d abuse, because I don’t believe their new lord can deliver on his promises. I know they are hurting, even if I am not inclined to feel their pain. The world will not give them back their jobs voluntarily, nor will other obstacles agree to step aside. By slashing wages, and eliminating entitlements, America might well become competitive again. But “Punch” has been, like the Obamanation before him, promising everyone everything both ways; and the Law of Contradiction cannot be abrogated.

Those pundits could not even see that Trump might win the election. Given that blindness, what else could they get right? In the absence of hard core Christian religion, they are the authorities to which each nation turns for prophetic guidance. And now everyone wants to kill them, too.

So just what is this “incurable elitist” suggesting?

Live. Work. Act decently. Pray. Remain buoyantly aloof, and do your own thinking.

Remembrance Day

That time of yeeare, … when yellow leaves are shaken from the bough; and those, including them so young, that wear the poppies. Through sixtyish years of comparative peace, I have waited on the knell; for the two minutes of perfect silence; for the trumpet and the invocation of “Flanders Fields” — hoping the bastards will not again omit the last stanza, which makes the whole point. Or for the words from Laurence Binyon which, however often repeated, find the heart every time:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them. …

My papa’s flyboy monkey helmet is now folded into my grandpa’s field satchel, on a top shelf: the Second World War tucked into the First. Once a year I take it down to dust; dig out grandpa’s trench diaries, papa’s pilot log. Turn the creakling pages. Touch photos of these young men in their sparkling uniforms. My sister has sent a new one she has found, very sharp after more than seventy years, which startles as if just taken. That innocent smiling face: shipping out to Europe. Good Lord, he is just a kid!

Pause to pray, on behalf of our fathers, for all those buddies who did not come home. Whose mothers wept when they read the cable; whose fathers stood to attention, lost; whose little siblings ran about the yard. Think strangely of all the missing descendants, of those boys called from the Ontario farms (and from every quiet corner of the Empire). And of their time of trial, among bullets and bombs: terrified but indomitable. Of those who lay in the mud of battle; and those who lived, to gutter out in age. Of our dead who sleep under the winter snows.

Sinking, now, deeper in the earth, one with the veterans of Thermopylae.


A few observations after the USA election, occasioned by an amble around Greater Parkdale today, during which I witnessed two major anti-Trump psychiatric meltdowns; then several minor ones during a coffee-clatch discussion.


1. How easily the college-educated go barking mad.

2. The most reliable “safe space” is a padded cell. The least reliable ought to be on campus.

3. The new administration might want to consider “transitioning” several Ivy League universities into mental homes to serve an urgent public need.

4. If you think Trump is bad, you should read some history. It wouldn’t take much. His views, in the main (as stated, not as falsely attributed), would have passed as middle-of-the-road liberal about one generation ago. On many of the issues, Trump is farther Left. By traditional standards for despots and demagogues, he strikes me as fey.

5. Which is why I despise him. I didn’t like liberal mediocrities then, and I don’t like them now.

6. On the specific question of his taste in fixtures and furnishings (including likely cabinet choices), we must be firm. On the basis of his Manhattan apartment alone, I’d be inclined to appoint a Special Prosecutor.

7. I will hope he is sufficiently Machiavellian to nominate Ted Cruz for the Scalia vacancy on the Supreme Court.

8. And then he could make a personal appearance there, shouting and waving his little hands. That could create three more vacancies.

9. Melania and Michelle should do a sitcom together. (“Transition Team.”)

10. As of three-thirty a.m. the night before last, I achieved a state of happiness I had not enjoyed for a long time. And this was with the help of only one (1) 750mL bottle of strong Belgian monastic ale. (Chimay, the red label, from the Pères Trappistes of Scourmont.) As I have indicated, I do not much care for that Donald fellow. But the defeat of Hillary was exhilarating.

11. Several gentle readers have written to congratulate me for correctly predicting the result of the election. But the truth is that I thought the Republicans would win by more. My private prediction was at least 7 percent on the popular vote, which would translate into an Electoral College landslide; plus substantial coat-tail gains in Congress; and every available Statehouse. I may have misunderestimated the number of dead people who would be voting, however; for dead people tend to vote Democrat.

12. He (Mr Trump) is, it should be said, a dangerous republican. He has already eliminated two political dynasties, within the USA (both the Bushes and the Clintons). Monarchists in Europe take note. Do not invite this man into your castles.

13. Up here in the Great Frigid North, we will have to build a wall, to stop Americans trying to cross our border. Most of them are, I admit, fairly harmless, sad-sack, refugee types, unlikely to overstrain our medicare system. But mixed in with them may be rappers, terrorists, CNN personalities, professional journalists, and Hollywood movie stars. Our airports may also have to be quarantined. This could cost us a lot of money, and we should send the bill to Trump.

14. Oh, I forgot, the Liberals won the last Canadian election. So instead, let them all in, and we’ll move to where it’s warmer. (Swap houses?)

15. I gather that Trump’s grandmother was a unilingual Gaelic speaker from the Outer Hebrides. This is where my maternal ancestors came from, too. Given the continuing hold of identity politics, could there be money in this for me?

16. One learns such things from e.g. The Buchan Observer, published near where Trump owns a golf course. Hence their headline yesterday: “Aberdeenshire business owner wins presidential election.”

17. It is said that the President-elect scares people; foreigners especially. This is the good news. The more they fear him, the better chance of peace.

18. Have you noticed that people who accuse him of hate crimes are frothing at the mouth? … No? …

19. I have.

Crowds & powers

As I have previously confessed, I became a Tory at the age of six. This was riding home from St Anthony’s, on the crossbar of our family servant’s bicycle, through an angry crowd in Lahore. He’d been sent to fetch me from danger. This beloved man, Bill, whose turban revealed him to be a Christian, chose a long route home, to skirt the crowd. But there was no avoiding them, and in the course of our wild ride, I distinctly remember blood and corpses. The crowd was demanding, as I recall, death for the hostages from a hijacked Indian aeroplane, but in the absence of its intended victims, began taking its violence out on itself. Yairs, a lurid spectacle.

I was not so precocious: it took me twenty more years to sort out what I might mean by the word “Tory.” But the view itself began in Hobbesian fear, that day, with my discovery that “the people” stink. They are mindless animals, and put some wrath in them, they will lose their bashfulness. And of course, not only in West Pakistan; for gradually one makes the further discovery that “the people are the people are the people” everywhere. They need to be tamed, cautioned, repressed, sometimes caged. My response to misty-eyed rhetoric for “democracy” is unfavourable. “Populism” is, in my sight, unambiguously evil — even when its cause be, for the moment, just. Given more time, and the inevitable failure to achieve immediate goals, the cause itself will turn rancid.

(This, incidentally, was the meaning of Father Faber’s aphorism, when he said, “All change is for the worse, including change for the better.”)

Father Schall writes today (over here) on my hero Socrates — judicially murdered by an Athenian assembly, for telling truths they did not want to hear. This antique Greek is the patron saint of the Toryism I espouse — the “old testament” to Saint Thomas More of the “new.” These are men whose loyalty to God preceded their loyalty to crowds and powers; men who could never be “elected,” except in the heavenly sense. Between them, Christ himself formed a “majority of one,” in the face of angry crowds and earthly powers.

“We must vote for Trump because the people are angry.” This is, possibly, the most stupid argument for voting I have heard. And yet it must have landed in my inbox one hundred times. (Together with the wrath of the senders.)

If you are angry, you do not belong in a voting booth; rather under a cold shower.

Sailing past Byzantium

To those who know nothing about the mediaeval, “byzantine” East of Christendom (and what do I know about anything?) a book by the respectable Oxford scholar, Averil Cameron, is worth mentioning. It is a short survey of developments in her academic field, entitled, Byzantine Matters (2014). It poses five basic questions on which our common assumptions are mostly wrong, and provides succinct directions for thinking again.

Mediaeval Greece, the Byzantine dynasties, and Orthodox Christianity: these are far from interchangeable concepts. Moreover, “Byzantine art” — the focus of enthusiasm in the anglosphere through the last century or so — is misunderstood. The term “Byzantine” itself — conceived from late antiquity as a deprecation — persists in the academy as an intelligence neutralizer. The vanity of “the West” gets in the way of appreciating a parallel Christian realm, which flourished for more than a thousand years, and never succumbed to the Arabs. (It finally succumbed to the Turks.) We disdain what amounts to an alternative universe of Christian witness and high culture, of great variety and depth, even more obtusely than we disdain our own Middle Ages.

We are narrowed and prejudiced by the attitudinizing of Edward Gibbon, and the inheritance (or disinheritance) of our Western “Enlightenment,” to view as backward a civilization in most ways superior to our “modern” own, from pride in the tinsel of technology. From AD 330 (the founding of Constantine’s capital) to 1453 (when it fell into Ottoman hands), we see only a continuous story of “decline.” But there were many declines over this vast period, and in the intervals between them, many recoveries.

I don’t review books in this space, any more than I provide a news service. I mention them only to advance some thought of my own, however unworthy. Today’s is on this matter of “decline” or “doom” — at a time when we casually accept that our own, Western, multi-century run is more or less finito. The idea of “Decline and Fall” is the verso of our progressivism. If we are not going up, we must be coming down, and since the evidence is plentiful for the latter, the idea seems too plausible to examine. (Why fight for a dying civilization? Take your pleasure now!)

What I like about this book is its elevation. Just as at the seminary where I sort-of teach, we try to supply students with “a map,” Dame Averil takes us aloft. Some things become visible from above, that cannot be discerned from ground level. With respect to Byzantine history, we are overdue for some bold revisionism, and could wish for a tremendous expansion of scholarly effort to publish many of the most prominent literary, artistic, and philosophical monuments.

But with respect to the world at large, and to the broad question of how things work in time, we have a model of still greater value. The very unfamiliarity of so much of the terrain — its comparative freshness — helps us see what, in the case of our own past, eludes us from over-familiarity.

We see that nothing in Byzantine history was necessary. None of the declines, defeats, disintegrations were inevitable; nor any of the rebounds, revivals, reconstructions. And yet, neither decline nor recovery was in any sense “a choice” — as we say, conventionally, about things like elections. What to human eyes seems pure bloody luck is always there, including centrally the presence or absence of men willing to run long odds; who take faith, when the world turns faithless, and will not agree to “steady as she sinks.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but in societies as in individuals nothing is determined; and the game ain’t over till the fat lady sings.

Last days of mankind

The best argument I have heard for voting at all, in the USA election — and thus voting for Trump — is that he has promised to leave Catholics alone (and by extension other Christians, and maybe even Jews, and other business-minding, law-abiding types). Therefore my gentle American readers can plead self-defence, and perhaps need not run to the Confessional (after pulling the lever for the Republican slate, and checking that the machine wasn’t supplied by George Soros).

On the other hand, the Catholics who vote for Clinton, after all that she has said and done, and what has been revealed about the machinations of Podesta and the others in her train, may not need to run to the Confessional, either. Rather they might prioritize getting their heads examined. For they propose to support an agenda that is unambiguously and aggressively evil. (More here.) Surely they cannot intend that.

If Trump wins, it will seem like the end of the world. The media will present it with the opposite of the glee with which they welcomed the triumph of Obama. But while this is an encouragement to vote for Trump, it is not decisive.

We should not allow ourselves to be swayed by these devils one way or the other. Bear in mind that the opposite of what they say is not always true. Much of their criticism of Trump is quite reasonable.

Since before the Declaration of Independence (i.e. going back to the Continental Congress), candidates for all parties have presented each election as “the most important in our lives.” This is nonsense, however. Whichever is elected, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride on. There isn’t one of those presidential candidates I’d feel comfortable voting for, were I a citizen of those USA.

Except possibly Calvin Coolidge. He left everyone alone.

Exhibitions at a picture

[This piece has suffered overnight enlargement.]


“Prophecy” is a word with lots of cheap synonyms, so that one uses it with restraint, and would rather use the synonyms wherever they might apply. The prophetic is not the prognostic, for instance; yet the prognostic might be, at an angle, prophetic. Our (contemporary) notions of “vision” and “the visionary” are substitutes for the prophetic, but empty in so far as they are agnostic or atheist. To discern truth, underlying appearances, is in some paradoxical relation to “seeing what is right in front of your eyes,” but in no conventional understanding of eyeballs; for one is seeing through what is superficial and essentially false (because incomplete: “heretical”).

The use of such terms in the celebration and self-celebration of opinion leaders and the fashion coolies could be called a sign of our times. The former are just madmen. The latter deal in a kind of “spilt beauty,” much like spilt religion.

A prophet is more like a messenger; to kill the prophet is to kill the messenger; Him who sent the message remains. And like a messenger, the prophet may not entirely understand the message he has brought from afar. He speaks better than he knows. A poet can be prophetic in this specific way; he is sometimes a poor interpreter of his own work. He discovers things in his own work that he hadn’t intended to put there; and these things include structural devices, shaping echoes and resonances, undercurrents and counterpoints — not just chance verbal jewels. The song or the story “gets away from him,” and often a poet has said of his most anthologized and remarkable poem that it “wrote itself.”

With painters, too, this experience is common: that a picture emerges almost in opposition to the painter’s intentions, so that he might think the “image behind the image” came out in front. He has shown more than he saw, or created an atmosphere beyond his own skills. He, too, becomes a messenger of some kind, and while his first training was only in the (imperative) craft, his last training is in the chastity required for revelation: making himself the means, not to his own but to the artistic purpose.

Or as I like to put this, “What makes the artist is not what makes the man.” His work is apart from him; it has its own development and sense of occasion. As the art becomes greater, the artist becomes less. At the extreme, he is nothing at all, his “personality” dissolves as Dante’s in the 30th canto of the Paradiso, or perhaps Bach in The Art of Fugue, where the composer dissolves into his composition. Farther, he cannot go. His “vision” is now perfect, his purpose is fulfilled, and he is transformed:

Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a Sea-change
Into something rich, and strange …

Only indirectly can one write about beauty, and never can it be understood, for what is embodied is a mystery: a Word negating words, and a sentiment guiding beyond the human. We are left with similes, analogies, correlatives: but to what?


An old friend, who is a trial lawyer, has written a book, on “a common preoccupation,” which he has entitled, The Experience of Beauty. (Harry Underwood, here.) He has been living with beauty in a special way, for his wife, Denise Ireland, is an explosively floral painter. (By which I don’t mean only “botanical.”) Regardless of its subject, each of her paintings is, on its surface, a wanton distortion of all elements, including colour. Everything is depicted with an uncanny vividness, which we might call “life affirming,” but is something more. It is as if she has done the opposite of paint: instead scraped or washed away everything that concealed or clouded until she has “restored the original.” The light, especially sunlight she exhibits, is not cast upon the objects, nor comes from within them, but seems to be everywhere; all the figures dance; and there is patterning that sings like a chorus.

For decades, Harry has had to live with this, and think about it, too. His book often resembles Denise Ireland paintings, done into words. At its centre Nietzsche and Plato are having a debate; their discussion spreads through seven other essays. I don’t think it gets anywhere at all (this is one of my finer compliments), yet in the course of not getting there, gets somehow behind it. He is writing about the capacity of art to enhance what it represents; not about tricks or abstraction. His final essay, on “The Beauty Within,” goes part way to explaining, in terms to which both Nietzschean and Platonist might plausibly subscribe, “the poetry of art” — bridging philosophical incommensurables.

Wallace Stevens said somewhere in his Adagia that, “Philosophy is the official view of Being; poetry is the unofficial view.” Persnickety Wittgenstein said as much in several places. And Plato’s near giddily destructive remarks on poetry and art — where he suggests banning them — are presented in the high poetic garb. They go beyond irony. We are dealing with something which cannot be explained in terms of something else, nor fitted in a scheme, because it is something in itself, incapable of translation.

But I disagree with Harry’s approach, for he reconciles art with life, and thus finds a beauty fed by experience and growing within us. It is feeling rising to thought, through some process of distillation; it involves self-discovery; and instead of the radical external of the divine, we get those bastard things, “ideals.” (His precis of Augustine seems more appropriate to Walt Whitman.) This is much the opposite of what I wrote above, but in moments seems another way of saying the same thing, as especially where he insists (in defiance of current opinion) that art must inspire us. In the moments when I lose him, however, I feel the trap closing on the cage of, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

To my mind, art and life are irreconcilable; the reconciliation is on another plane, that is vertical and not horizontal. Art, I would say, reconciles us with God, by making reality at least partially accessible to us. Rather than assuaging, it tears at our flesh, pries our clamped shell, immolates our glibness. It is by doing so that it has moral consequences, pulling us into the realm of charity. That “inspiration” is not something that enriches us, so much as it is something that annihilates us. We are there, when before we were here; we have escaped the prison of gravity and routine. The beautiful is “over the top”; I want to laugh sometimes when I see it. We return to our world of weight and measure with regret — unless we can somehow keep that beauty.

And as I have written persistently, the apprehension of beauty is contingent upon Love — alerted suddenly from storge (“affection”) to unconditional agape. It is harrowing, in that way: to love what one cannot possess, except as a commodity through art dealers. (And I would almost speak like a socialist, and say that when “owned” it begins to fade and die.)

But as Augustine in fact said in his Confessions, a longing is aroused for nothing that can be satisfied in this world. And as Plato, it is for something of which this world can only remind us. The test of art is that mysterious mnemonic, almost déjà vu.

The “prophetic,” the “visionary,” has always this untranslatable, this inevitable quality. It seems to stand alone. Instead of taking it into us, we must take ourselves out to it. We must, as it were, become artists to see “art” — whether in human works, or in nature (which is saturated with art).

And once we have been there, and done that — been exposed to a revelation of God’s will in an exhibition of the shocking beauty of His world — we are drawn out of our miserable selves, out of our hapless daily routines; restored to a form of life that is not merely biological but implicitly everlasting. For instead of the two convenient dimensions to which we had become too easily accustomed, there is suddenly a third: the Gloria.

Rock bottom defined

For some reason, I’ve forgotten what, I’ve been dipping lately into the Roman historians. Not in a serious, studious way (I hardly ever do that), simply opening a Loeb here or there, in just the way I used to open a newspaper. There is a view of history that is utterly unHegelian, and I take it. I’m sure the story makes some sense, run forward in strictly chronological order; it seems to make better sense run backward. Whichever, we may discover the sound-and-fury significance, but not in this lifetime. Meanwhile, if we spread it out on our mental broadsheet of space and time, it’s just a lot of news; and as others have observed, extremely repetitious.

Cassius Dio and Ammianus Marcellinus are the ones I want to be reading, but those Loebs somehow disappeared in the course of my last personal catastrophe. But everything is online anyway, these days, in a form that will wreck your mind and eyesight.

The former was a ten-volume bore, as I distantly recall. Dio takes his Historia Romana from the arrival of Aeneas down to his own early third-century floruit, when he was himself a player, watching horrible things happen, first-hand. (He was a rather pompous Roman senator, and sometime provincial governor.) The text is scatty, but largely recoverable from Byzantine compilations. His eightieth and last scroll is the best. It leaves us shortly after the reign of Heliogabalus, the fourteen-year-old transgender Syrian boy who became emperor in AD 218 (thanks to the machinations of his very wealthy high-born mother), and who amazed the establishment “inside the beltway” of the Eternal City with a crazed, sick religious cult, and his own vile, disgusting behaviour, until his Praetorian Guard mercifully “took him out” in 222. Gentle reader must consult the original sources for hints of that behaviour; I won’t repeat them in this family website.

The latter, Ammianus, who took upon himself the task of updating Tacitus, wrote a Res Gestae that has almost entirely disappeared, except for some good bits towards the end, which give a chronicle of events through the generation AD 353 to 378. Having served at a high, mostly soldiering level in Persia, Egypt, and elsewhere, and being familiar with the court of Constantius II, and then Julian (“the Apostate”) — he is an elegant and charming gentleman to my sight, who provides a wonderful, sometimes mildly droll, world picture of that age, when the western Empire has not yet properly collapsed, but the whole is trending increasingly oriental. It is the age that corresponds to the Arian utter mess in our Church. Ammianus is not a Christian himself, but he has nothing against Christians, and nothing to do with what we might call the last stand of classical paganism, which expressed itself in more persecutions.

Let us not overload this post with (Greek-speaking) Roman historians. I want to emphasize the time between the two I have mentioned: about six generations. And I do this to deny two illusions about the Roman “decline and fall.” The first is that it was “progressive,” in the sense that things got continuously worse. The madness at the top was fairly continuous, but was often worse in the earlier centuries than in the later. The second is that, despite memorable (and frequent) catastrophic events, the thing took a long time to fall, and only in the West did public order collapse, almost entirely, into what we call the Dark Ages. Even those have been misreported to the popular mind, for relics survive to the present day, and the Holy Roman Empire went down only the day before yesterday, historically speaking. (To be replaced by Bismarck, Wilhelm II, Hitler, &c.)

Through it all, through every century so far as I can see, the apocalyptic sense has been active. We are always, and reasonably, thinking “things can’t get worse,” but things can and often do, and any apparent relief from the long disaster of human self-government is, at best, a quick and confusing “time out.”

The American Republic was (rather ostentatiously) founded in the image of the Roman, and to my mind had already mutated into something more like the Empire, by the time of Andrew Jackson. History is too grubby to form neat parallel lines, but we should not be surprised to find by now that leadership is in the hands of men (and women!) who are (on the analogy of alcoholics) “functioning insane.” And as all the more decadent emperors of the past, their power depends on their supporters, many of whom justify their loyalty because, well, the alternative is worse, and must be avoided at any cost. In the end, some Sardanapalus pulls them all down — spiritually, but also materially.

This is no Apocalypse — which may still come at any time. But when it does, we’ll know it. You can’t miss stuff like the sky actually falling.

Instead, everything is normal. Augustine touched on this in De Civitate Dei. Gentle reader will recall that there are two cities. We should not be surprised, and our efforts should not be principally directed towards the wrong one. Rather than, say, trying to make America great again, our worldly efforts should instead be directed only to preventing the worst from happening; to deflecting missiles, as it were, regardless of their source; to calling “time outs” whenever possible, and tending to the victims. Because that is the limit of what we can do, in this vallis lacrimarum.

Of a Hallowe’en in Sweden

People like me are “obsessed, scrupulous, self-appointed, nostalgia-hankering virtual guardians of faith and liturgical practices, very disturbed broken and angry individuals, who never found a platform or pulpit in real life, holy executioners, deeply troubled, sad and angry.” I’ve selected these descriptives from a single sentence of Fr Thomas Rosica’s, last May, when he was speaking on the need for dialogue, and receiving some media award. For three years now, he has been the current pope’s English-language spokesman, never corrected by his boss. We knew him before, around here in Toronto. Less said about that, the better, especially as the man is litigious.

My contrary view could be stated more economically. I think Father Rosica is a thug. I could add adjectives all day, but there are other things in my obsessed, scrupulous agenda.

Yet I am reminded of this man in my All Saints morning ramble through the electronic diselysium. He just took a kick at the Catholic Herald, for instance — a paper which often publishes orthodox Catholic writers, and today points out that Catholic and Lutheran positions (plural, possibly on both sides) have never been farther apart.

His name came up in relation to the latest papal appointments, by which the whole Congregation of Divine Worship was overhauled. Cardinals Burke, Bell, Scola, Bagnasco, Ranjith, Ouellet, and others friendly to the Old Mass, have been suddenly replaced by a selection from Bergoglio’s new brooms, in an act reported by the Catholic press in Europe (often enthusiastically) as a sharp slap to the face of the Congregation’s prefect, Cardinal Sarah — and his tireless work to restore reverence to the Mass, in both its old and new forms. We wonder now, which slipper drops next? For Rome abounds with rumours that Pope Francis is reversing Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum — piecemeal, so not to provoke open schism between the “progressive” and “catholic” ecclesial factions.

The pope himself has been delivering colourful insults to our beleaguered faithful, throughout his reign; Rosica merely echoes and amplifies. On Sunday, the original date for the Feast of Christ the King, while the Basilica of Saint Benedict was crumbling in the earthquake at Norcia, he was proceeding to Sweden to celebrate the 499th anniversary of Lutheranism, in the old Lund cathedral with the lady primate of the state Church of Sweden. His homily for this Hallowe’en was full of breezy ecumenical platitudes, and tooth-grinding historical clichés, of no doctrinal substance whatever; though he did declare a new category of sin: not against Christ, but against “ecumenism.”

I am tempted to commit one of those. The Reformation was the greatest disaster to befall the Western Church, and its anniversary is an occasion for lamentation, not the sort of celebration we associate with professional football. From my (“catholic”) Catholic perspective, there can be no undoing its effects until the descendants of the heretics return to Holy Church.

We also recognize many Lutherans and other Protestants who are, at this day, far more orthodox than many Catholics (including recently-appointed bishops); and that, reunion with them would be a source of extraordinary joy. But it cannot be shallow and rushed, for there are real theological and liturgical obstacles, that cannot be kicked over.

Such obvious things need repetition at a time when idols like “ecumenism” are replacing Our Lord in the worship of our diminishing Western congregations.


That was yesterday; in the rapid evolution of modern life, today is All Saints. I look to Lund, and its venerable, romanesque cathedral, that fell into the hands of the State nearly five centuries ago, by what is called “robbery under law,” in an operation parallel and roughly coterminous with what was done in England by Henry VIII. The whole town of Lund was once bristling with the spires of churches, chapels, shrines, convents, like a northern Rome. It was once the spiritual, and also the artistic, cultural and intellectual, even political centre of Europe’s sub-Arctic. Today it remains, a stripped and shrivelled “symbol” of an amended past, waiting for the return of its riches.

Lund cathedral contains one restored, delightful curiosity. It is an elaborate astronomical clock, built about 1380. One may watch it to anticipate sunrises and sunsets, moonrises and moonsets, throughout the year, and to calculate with the help of its perpetual calendar the movements of the heavens through the passing hours, days, weeks, months, decades. It is known as the Horologium mirabile Lundense, and at its crown the visitor may see Saint Lawrence, the ancient patron, flanked by the four Evangelists.

That saint: who was martyred under Valerian (AD 258), for his slowness in turning over Church property to the pagan Roman authorities of his day. … Ah, Valerian! … who ended in Persia, as an exhibit, stuffed.

And ah, Saint Lawrence, that saint who, when commanded to surrender the riches of the Church, brought forth a crowd of the poor, the crippled, the blind, the diseased, the old and frail, to the intense irritation of the Roman bureaucrats.

Who chose death over “dialogue,” and platitudes.

One thinks of all the saints who, borne upon the breath of Saint Lawrence, and the wind from out of the empty tomb, Christianized the Danes and Swedes; of all who faced the vast expropriations at the material founding of Luther’s new church; the monks and nuns and all the religious turned out of their cells by a human earthquake. Of their old houses, “reformed” to make such splendid estates for the fat lords of the new bourgeois order, and quarried for their stone. …

That time of yeare thou maist in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few doe hang
Upon those boughes which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. …

And then, one considers the uncountable, forgotten holy men and women who have witnessed Christ, through every threat and punishment, down centuries in all nations, now ascended beyond our capacity to imagine.

Pray to them, to all the Saints, at a time when the skies are again occluding, and we need them in our appeal to God — to send more Saints, that they may show us through the fearful darkness the way Home.