Essays in Idleness



North America takes a day off today — for Canadian Thanksgiving, and Columbus Day down there in Buffalo and points south; or Día de la Raza more properly celebrated on the 12th of October (the actual date of Columbus’s first landing in this New World). It is also, I understand, a Fiesta Nacional in Spain, and Giornata Nazionale in Italy; and Día del Respeto a la Diversidad in poor, benighted Argentina.

There were European visitors before Columbus: Basque fishermen to the rich codfields of Newfoundland, perhaps, and Norsemen before them. Leif Erikson landed, most likely in the autumn of the year 1000, and for all we know, Saint Brendan the Navigator nearly half of a millennium before him. Christians all, and given their ages, quite certainly Catholic.

One way or another, Canada has the deepest Christian roots in the Americas, and our early northern Thanksgiving should reflect that. The second Monday in October is as good a day as any to pray on it.

In Canada as elsewhere in this New World a great deal of neurosis has being exhibited over the last generation or so. By the Leftist trolls, Columbus has been associated with wickedness, and the salvation of so many native souls with “cultural imperialism.” True, the conquistadors from Extramaduro were in some respects no better than those from Saint-Malo and Bristol — greedy and unscrupulous, even murderous in pursuit of gold and glory. Humans have been like that in all cultures.

Against this we must consider what was unique: the selfless devotion of the Jesuits and other missionaries who carried the Cross. They were another party entirely, often protesting the behaviour of their godless countrymen, and a constant irritant to the nominally Christian governments back home.

High enterprise, and its requisite courage, are to be commended. The accomplishments of first explorers into unknown lands merit our qualified admiration. But where this courage is combined with the evangelical calling, in expectation of martyrdom, the qualifications are removed. America became the burial ground for so many Christian saints.

In giving thanks, for the divine providence that brings the harvest year on year — for the sun that gilds the corn, and the moisture that feeds life upon our little rock hurtling through space — we are doing what all men have done by instinct since time out of mind. Those alive enough to read this are indebted for everything we have. Let us get to Mass so we may address this thanks to Him who hath bestowed every gift of Being.

At sea

We come again to the victory at Lepanto, commemorated today in the Sacrifice of the Mass, embracing the Feast of her Holy Rosary. I’ve remembered Lepanto more than once before (as, here), and God willing, will return to it again. The reader who wants to know more about it can go to the reference books: the more recent, generally, the less reliable. Or, Father Rutler gives a splendid account of the whole business (here).

“You had to be there.” This is a thought that applies to many circumstances, but in this case it means to read — to reconstruct so far as possible in one’s mind — the incident and its time from the original accounts. Armchair strategists may try to explain how the papal fleet defeated a massed Ottoman armada from a navy which had previously dominated the whole of the Mediterranean Sea. The closer one reads, the more improbable the victory, turning on a moment with the winds, the full 180 degrees. Yet it was necessary to the defence of Christendom, and was accomplished by multiple feats of daring, all of which seemed to turn out lucky. It is true that morale was on our side, for we were fighting for our freedom and besides, the Christian slaves that manned so many of the out-sized Turkish galleys could not have had their hearts in it. But more largely it was volunteers against seasoned professionals; and the plucky, valiant amateurs won.

In trying to comprehend history, I have come to respect eyewitness and contemporary sources, not only in the Gospels. “Journalism,” one might glibly call it, but that term refers almost always to secondhand accounts, gathered at some distance. Of course firsthand accounts may be dishonest, yet there is such a thing as the “ring of truth,” borne through in the results. It takes a broad mind to discern it; one not clotted with anachronistic, modern assumptions about how the world works; a mind which therefore refuses to exclude the possibility of factors such as Faith and Miracle. To discern sincerity is a first step. Believers are in less need of hype.

The men who defeated the “Infidel Turk” (as we then called him, and continued to call him through later centuries) believed they were serving a Holy Cause. They had dedicated their efforts and called individually and collectively upon the assistance of the Virgin Mary, every single man with his Rosary. They were in no doubt why they would need it. And it was their own extremely confident assurance that she had won the victory for them, that spread through Europe (both Catholic and Protestant) after the event.

This is irreducible fact; deed. We are describing an event nearly twenty generations removed from our present day: different Turks, different Europeans. Yet continuity may be found in the respective Islamic and Christian faiths. For fourteen centuries these two have been clashing, and we have hardly prevailed in all of the exchanges. It is a violent history, but can be no other, against a religion normally spread by violence. But on this occasion, with everything on the line, as on others dating from Charles Martel, our own faith has carried us, regardless of the odds. Had it not, on any of the great occasions, Europe would certainly be Islamic today, and by extension America.

God has been with us whenever we have called upon Him, with our whole being, especially through Mother Mary. Even in disorder, our prayers have been heard. We may not now have a future, for what remains of our Western Civilization; but if we do, it will be Christian.

About time

One last week, two more in this: the doddering oldies, pushing off. How often they die in the approach to winter. Ich habe genug, as the Bach cantata says: an expression that may be taken wryly. Both my parents left, about this time of year. The youngest of that generation, ahead of mine, are now passing ninety. Few will last another decade. In my childhood veterans of the Great War were common enough; some had yet to retire. Then suddenly there were none; none at all. And so now with the graduates of the Second Great War, with their lovers and companions, gone where?

“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.”

Last week it was the turn of my Uncle Joe: among the last of the master carpenters and joiners. A good man, and a happy: blest with kindly wife and children. But also with tragedies, pain, awful loss. Struggling at the last to sort through recollections; confused between the living and the dead. Need I attend the reception in Burlington? Of course I must. For in the moment I learnt of Joe’s passing, I heard my late father’s voice. Saying only: “That was my little brother.”

At the reception, so many cousins growing old like me; and young ones I had never met, children of children, so “Warrenish” in their faces. Jim, Bob, Joe, all gone: the idea that Death is picking through my family. The photos everywhere of lives lived; one in particular of a sprawling family reunion, half a century ago. (That’s me: on the far right.) But now fifty more years will pass; and a hundred, and a thousand. There will be not one fragment of dust to prove that we were ever here. That which was so commonplace, so present, and sometimes so utterly boring, becomes impossibly remote. One reaches through receding place and time. And as one reaches, it pulls farther away.

Soon it will be the turn of my contemporaries. Many even of these old friends are gone. I know, because I attended the funerals, or received the letters, or caught the shocking news by chance. When they die they grow younger in the passages of the mind. Even Rick, Joe’s eldest, killed by a car at the age of twenty-three, trying to save a dog. My precise contemporary, but now I search in my memory for his face and voice, and for a moment find him vividly before me, but reverted to eight or nine. It is as if they perish through birth as well as death, growing ever smaller.

Christ comes into this: that Christ who died, descended into Hell, then rose that Death shall have no dominion. We live, if we live at all, in Him.

Viva el Rey

According to Alfonso II (“the Troubadour,” “the Chaste”), Catalonia is an autonomous collection of counties within the Kingdom of Aragon, which straddles the Pyrenees. This was in the twelfth century, slightly before my time. As king he was also styled “Count of Catalonia”; and too, “of Provence”; with interests beyond in Languedoc and oversea in Sardinia. He was not entirely sovereign, however: for he was united with the king of Castile even then, under a bond of vassalage. Moreover, there were no absolute sovereignties, in the subsidial matrix of mediaeval government.

In other words, the socialist romanticists of Catalonia are right to claim a certain autonomy of more than eight centuries’ standing. But in all this time their proposed nation state never existed. The remarkable city of Barcelona has been continuously the centre of this coherent realm, with a language as beautiful as Occitan and others strewn through the interior mountains. For more than five centuries a distinct “principality” (like Wales). But not a kingdom as, for instance, Valencia once became.

Anciently, primitive Iberian; then Carthaginian, Roman, Visigothic; the current identity is a product of the European Middle Ages. Catalans emerged at a Christian frontier of the conquering Dar al-Islam. Their knights took an important part in the Reconquista, driving the Moors back south from where they’d come; freeing their Christian slaves. All Europe is thus indebted to a heritage of Catalan warriors, saints, poets, artists; and as ever, patient and industrious farmers. Within Christendom, their autonomy has always been recognized, most recently by the Kingdom of Spain.

They have been the wealthiest constituent part of that kingdom through many generations, while their attention was focused upon creative acts of trade; of life, letters, religion, and away from the scourge of politics.

We could go on with this little backgrounder, but my only intention is to stress that the demand for an independent Catalan republic is something very modern, wild and evil.

A single glance at a photograph of the current Catalan cabinet — which ordered a referendum in defiance of national law, in which the majority of the population did not participate — explains everything. They are bitter-faced women in pantsuits, and men with that smug, leftish smirk, and the dead look in the eyes. We have seen them before in Quebec, and Scotland, and will see them again.

They are the worst enemies of Catalonia; of everything she has been through the centuries. In their ravenous pursuit of power they have made a peaceful land into a psychic warzone, turned neighbour against neighbour and race against race. And this in a blink of time. The violence has barely begun. More bodies wait to be heaped upon the demonic altar of Nationalism.

There were no serious grievances at the start. No one was oppressed, except in his imagination. Now there will be grievances on all sides, real oppression, and scores to settle through coming generations.

Nice work, Satan. You’ve done it again.

Against closure

To the contemporary mind, empathy is a sentiment, and therefore we must sentimentalize. We who think ourselves Christian should be trying to make some distance from this; to re-establish (my favourite word this month:) chastity in our empathetic responses. There is too much hugging. There is not enough quiet, selfless devotion. For the demonstrative empathy I observe, almost everywhere at the slightest call, is impure theatre. It is empty gestures; “virtue signals” comparable to many others on display. It reverses the moral requirement for hardness of head, and softness of heart.

It is heartless empathy. One does one’s emoting for the appropriate audience then as quickly as possible, one gets away.

Gentle reader will know that I am dispositionally unflattering to the mass media of entertainment and supposed “news.” Constant immersion in this filth (as Pope Benedict aptly called it) is perhaps the principal cause of our empathic showiness. Its deeper history was one with the growth of journalism and novels. Mimetic creatures, we emulate “feelings.” We “act,” not in the sense of doing anything useful, but of cheap theatre.

I know these things because I find them in myself. Though arguably less sogged with the popular culture than most, I know exactly how to behave in response to the usual cues for “support.” I have all the phrases down, and have mastered the touchy-feelies. I can’t bring myself to cry on cue, but can see how it is done; and how to climb down into our cultural swamp — where we grieve for people we never knew, in places we’ve never been, such as Las Vegas.

Yet I have noticed that the genuinely bereaved are alone. They are contemplative by the enforcement of nature. We demand that they acknowledge the unwanted gift of our emotional enclosure; that they be empathetic to the empathetic, as it were. The ugliest of these impositions comes under the label of “grief counselling.”

Women are the worst, but also the best, in the trying times of death and catastrophe. A good woman can see what work needs doing. She does it; gets help when needed. Leaves the men to stand around “being strong.” (The best of the men also make themselves useful.) Food always needs cooking; there is cleaning to be done; other details to take care of. Contemplation requires leisure; let the grieving have the leisure they require. They ask for no advice: give none. Don’t distract with offers of help that are both unnecessary and insincere. Instead be attentive to request, and act — invisibly. Be there, on call like a soldier; and like a good soldier, shut up.

To have loved, and lost, is a terrible adventure. Only we, the audience, want closure: want the movie to end before the night is out. Want a happy ending (“a celebration of life”). But for the protagonist of grief, the adventure is beginning. Let him emerge in due course with his gifts from the dead; with his own character enhanced by experience. Do not set an agenda for him.

The truest act of empathy for the grieving is to pray for the dead.