Essays in Idleness


Death the real illusion

In this Catholic season of death — All Hallowtide, still within the Octave — one’s thoughts run to the whole history of death, and dead people. This especially in light of advancing age, and the prospect of becoming dead oneself. The topic is so large, a certain focus is inevitable. England, for instance, where I lived as a young man (see last Idlepost) struck me as a country rich in dead things and people. Walking the hedgerows and fieldpaths there, as on the Continent, one encountered death at every turn, as much in the facts of agriculture as in commemorations of church and churchyard. It is a fault of America, and of rural Ontario, that there are few rights-of-way for the long-distance walker. We are stuck in our cars, whizzing through.

The urbane have perhaps always been busy erasing death from their picture of life. We imagine farms as places “full of life.” But the old farmers could tell you that is less than half the story: just a brief passage in the history of death. The groaning table of reunion, at harvest and thanksgiving, is death on turkeys and geese; our daily bread is golden death on the green and waving corn. Finally the grim reaper appears, and it is death on us. Our winter is death; death then resurrection.

Long I have been curious about the Great Pestilence that trimmed the population of Britain and Europe by a third or more, in the fourteenth century. I make too much of it; the plague was a recurring event for centuries before and after. I notice from the tabloids that it is returning, through Africa this time. (Indeed, it is already here, in the form of voluntary abortions.) I know there will be pestilence to come, when we will all think it terribly important. It rivetted attention, I’m sure, in the autumn of 1348, and through the summer of 1349. And yet within a generation it is hardly mentioned.

England, below the Ribble and Tees, is special, thanks to the Domesday Book of the invading, tax-loving Normans, and their general propensity to good record-keeping. The towns and villages ennumerated in 1086 can be traced to the present day; more than nineteen-in-twenty are still there. Having figures to start, and through the parish books later, we can track an economic and demographic history with an accuracy possible in no other country. We can know, for instance, of the population boom through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which had slackened well before the “Black Death.” And with that boom, impressive advances in farming, technology, and building, as today. Nothing conduces to technical improvement, as a bit of crowding.

This proportion I cited — the nineteen-in-twenty — which I have from reading in economic history mostly years ago, fascinates my attention. We know large tracts were depopulated, we find the archaeological evidence easily enough. They were planting rye within the walls of Winchester, and many other towns. Everywhere, they had elbow-room again. Our deep ecologists would have been pleased — those who think life on this planet would be better had a few billion souls not been born, or would politely disappear. As Christianity, and environmentalism, are mortally opposed, and the fourteenth century was overwhelmingly Christian, I expect complaints of overpopulation were differently expressed at the time. Mostly it would have been moaning from younger brothers about the distribution of inherited land.

Always, there have been younger brothers. Always, there have been survivors. What delighted me was the speed with which all the vacant places were filled. As we’ve seen, too, after ghastly wars — or by the immigration after ten-millions of abortions — demography abhors a vacuum.

Death may win in the end, but needs life to sustain it.

I love it when we give death a good run. But a time comes when the contest is over, and we shake skeletal hands. For life is God’s, and He bids us move along.


[This item brought forward five years, and rewritten.]


One of the first things I did, upon becoming a Christian, is stopped going to church.

Er, perhaps that sentence will need glossing. It is intentionally misleading. Except weddings and funerals, attended from politeness; except a few events in childhood, dragged or pulled; I was no church-goer. The idea, “It is Sunday, therefore I must go to church,” had never occurred to me through my adolescent, atheist, wandering years. The contrary idea, “It is Sunday, therefore I won’t go to church,” had occurred quite often. I would see people going there and think, “I’m not one of you. Not now, not ever.”

Yet while living and travelling in England and Europe, I often went into a church. Never on a Sunday or Holy Day, however. My interest was archaeological. A history buff: I wanted to see the art and architecture while it still stood. I was also curious about the music, and drawn in sometimes by the sound of an organ. But if I found a choir, too, and a “church service” in progress, I would take flight.

I became a Christian in my twenty-third year, on the 15th of April, 1976. I’m sure I have explained this elsewhere. In the weeks and months that followed, I did not enter a church, even as a gawper. The last thing I wanted, was to meet a priest.

For I’d resisted “deism” as long as I could; resisted Christ, when that proved impossible; finally surrendering to the Holy Ghost. But still I wanted no part of “organized religion.” It was enough of an embarrassment to have lost my faith in Atheism; there’d be nothing left of my dignity if, like some bowl-capped Boy Scout (I despised Boy Scouts) I was found-in at a Jamboree. Verily, I recall one of my first sincere prayers: “Please, Lord, don’t make me go in there.”

But the Lord made me go in. In fact, He tricked me.

From what I can make out, vague belief in “God” is the easy part for most people (though it wasn’t for me). “Christ” is the hard part, because He is not vague. (Whereas, I demanded some precision from the start.) Soon you are beaten by the One-in-Three. But then, Church comes as another hard part. As Chesterton said, the worst thing about the Catholic Church is, that it’s full of Catholics. Who can stand them? Even today, I find them quite a trial.

A proud lad, I prided myself on knowing more Church doctrine than the average Catholic, more Bible than the average Protestant; and for being able to reject it all. As things turned out, I tried the Anglican Communion first. (If you can take them, you can take anything.)

Today, the Feast of All Souls, would be the forty-first anniversary of my breakdown.

It is a blustery November in 1976, and I am on one of my long walks, through Suffolk. Truth to tell, I’d already looked into “contemporary Catholicism,” assuming the Roman Communion to be the definitive Christian one. A close friend, and beloved old atheist companion from the road in Asia — giant, red-haired, Edinburgh Scottish, brilliant and philosophically ruthless, had put the matter plainly for me. This had been after, with perfect attention, listening to my account of conversion.

“If I’d had your experience,” he said, “I wouldn’t fart about. I’d go straight to Rome.”

But upon looking in, I was aghast. Those were the days of the “Dutch Catechism,” and the clown masses, and the socialist priests (remember them?) — of obvious heresies and intentional vileness. I couldn’t believe the “Catholic Church” retained any standing, with God or anyone else; it had so obviously gone to the dogs. Whereas, the higher Anglicans still had smells and bells. And beautiful music, and tasteful decorations. So far as I was unconsciously church-scouting, they had already moved to the top of my list.

Where was I? … Yes, in Suffolk, with satchel, proceeding on the footpaths, village to village; mediaeval spire to mediaeval spire. Viewing “humble country folk” with my city bug eyes. I had no business there; was only passing through, Ipswich to Woodbridge I believe. Oh dark: the sun was well set. Came, in due course, to St Mary’s, Great Bealings; though can’t be sure it wasn’t St Mary’s, Playford.

The tower bell was ringing. On a sudden whim, entirely out of character, I went inside.

There were parishioners in there, kneeling in the pews. Pray, stand, sit, mutter; kneel, sit, stand, sing a hymn. Then they rose and began to stumble about.

My memory fails, compounded by my confusion at the time. I had read the Book of Common Prayer, but quickly lost my place in it. I was ignored, stepped around, and almost through, as if I were the ghost. There were candles, a procession was forming: “What now?”

The procession led out, through the arch under the tower, into the churchyard. On clearing the portal it scattered, into small, purposeful groups.

And then I realized: these people are carrying their candles to the tombstones; each family to their own family graves.

For centuries, they had been doing this; from time out of mind. Ploughed into the ground, generation by generation; waiting patiently for the Judgement Day. “With the Lord, one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

I had come as a spectator, I suppose, or voyeur; as an intellectual, some kind of anthropologist. Now as a Christian, but from very far away. And now, here I was among the natives.

As I say, my smugness suddenly broke down. The bell again chimed: “I am one of these people.”