Essays in Idleness


One year to another

The year is ending with 313 unanswered letters in my email inbox, two dozen more of the snail variety, and thank-you notes unwritten to most of the very kind people who responded to my mendicant plea on Black Friday, more than five weeks ago (some in amounts greater than 50$). … I am ashamed. … But too, I am without secretarial assistance, or some whip-wielding personage to keep me rolling my boulder. I do attentively read all the incoming; and express my thanks to our common Maker for a remarkably thoughtful audience, in frequent short expostulations and Rosary prayers. Please bear with me, and when necessary, forgive.

On this, the fourteenth anniversary of my reception into the Holy Catholic Church.


Having given my prediction for the next two thousand years, yesterday, it would be petty for me to tell gentle reader everything that will happen in the next twelve months. One year is much like another, and the little dramas exploited by the industry of news and entertainment are actually quite boring. That which is genuinely interesting, partakes of Mystery and is not subject to seasonal change.

Take Trump for instance, whom I have mentioned too often in this last year, as he is a common topic for conversation, being overtaken by the weather only in this last week or so. Like the other rakers and shakers of history, he is, almost certainly, secretly a bore. Indeed, this may be one of history’s best-kept secrets: a vast conspiracy of the rich and famous to make us think they live enchanted lives, when in fact almost everything they do is tedious, and exciting only when violence intervenes.

He has done, to be sure, lots of little things, to restrain the administrative state (in which I include mild tax relief). The American economy would seem to be booming again, even the manufacturing sector, but what does that matter? In the absence of his vaunted wall, he seems able to restrict illegal immigration, merely by tweeting. (It is amazing what putzes even criminals are.) By taking the micromanagement pincers off his generals he has allowed big gains in the field against Daesh and Taliban, without committing major new resources. The best bit was, “next year in Jerusalem.” Other things of this nature, I happily applaud.

But there is no great structural transformation, and won’t be. He is trimming at the edges of what I have long called the “Nanny State” (the complex of government and big business), and have now improved to, “Twisted Nanny State.” The people themselves do not want to take moral or fiscal responsibility for their own lives, and have adapted too well to an environment of centrally-regulated spiritual, material, and aesthetic tawdriness; to “consumerism” in trade, politics, and leisure. Only God can change hearts. Sentimentality is completely ineffective.

Ditto, the right-wing semi-lunatics whose rise is in response to the décrépitude of the European Union. I wish them all well, but they are trimming at the edges.

Laws of inertia, in the universe we inhabit, will continue to function. Things stay the same until the tipping points are reached. Dramatic and comprehensive change requires applications of extraordinary energy, which cannot be controlled by mere human beings. But individual hearts can change, and we should focus on what is actually achievable, leaving the aggregate effect to God.

I’m going to disappear for a few days. But first, my best wishes for a Happy New Year and Christmas Octave, to each of you and to all of our beloved — the living and alike, the dead.

A bit chilly

Among the joys of winter, up here in the land God gave Cain (“Cainada”), are our glorious “cold snaps.” That is when temperatures, which we had naïvely thought insupportable, suddenly plunge. The breeze comes into this, too. I don’t know if readers in Bali, or Gabon, can fully appreciate what I mean by a “windchill” of minus 40 degrees. (Fahrenheit or Celsius: take your pick.) We’ve had a taste of this in Greater Parkdale recently. Too, a lot of snow. I am told that we are, moreover, sharing this “polar vortex” with much of the United States, and north-western Europe. It hasn’t shut up the global warmalarmists, but it has made them discernibly less strident, which I’m willing to count as a Christmas present.

Nematodes, I am reliably informed, can survive forty-plus weeks frozen at liquid nitrogen temperatures, then spring back to life, to resume their attack on your sheep. Who, unfortunately, cannot survive at liquid nitrogen temperatures. Nor can any other warm-blooded beast, as we are reminded in weather-channel videos that show wild animals desperately trying to break into our homes. (Don’t let them in. They’ll be polite, at first, but once they get comfortable, all bets are off.)

I am a little too proud, perhaps, of not being a nematode, yet envy such tricks as cryoprotective dehydration. The closest I can get is in my preference for whisky to water. That is not their only trick, as I understand, nor are the resilient bacteria one-trick wonders. The angelic engineers went to much trouble; alas, not all of them were on our side. But the nematodes do serve to remind that life may be harder to eradicate from this planet than alarmists suppose. Even we humans have tricks up our sleeves, though most involve “technology.” I am sceptical of our ability even to kill ourselves off, without God’s help.

Note that, for instance, despite the Devil’s best efforts, the world still contains Jews and Armenians. Could we take leave for a moment, and return to the planet in a couple thousand years, I think we would find they were still here; along with Catholics I am happy to say. I’m less sure about the rest. I think of the Zoroastrians — quite dominant in the Middle East for a millennium or two, then suddenly, quite gone. I give the anthropogenic global warming religion another decade at most.

Alternatively, the world will end at eight-thirty tomorrow morning (GMT).

By fire or in ice? … Whichever. … Those who have frozen to death are often found naked. This is because, below a certain temperature, the human metabolism confuses hot and cold. The exposed form the mad impression that they are on fire, so rip off all their clothing. But it wouldn’t have helped if they hadn’t.

According to the latest on “Zharkova cycles,” the sun has not one but two sub-surface magnetic wave components, both approximately eleven Earth years, but slightly fluctuating, and slightly offset. As they move together we get plenty of sunspots, and the Earth warms. As they move apart we get solar quiescence, and a cooling. Factor in longer-term wobbles in our orbit — for the next century or more we’ll be moving farther from the stove — and we may plausibly predict that our grandchildren will have something much like the cold of two centuries ago (which included 1816, “the year without a summer”). Too, that this adventure will begin memorably, around 2022, with a low tacked on a low.

But this is the work of odd, isolated hypothesizers (like Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, and so forth), working in defiance of the “settled science.” Indeed, show me a single advance in real science that wasn’t disrespectful of the “settled” sort, and I will show you some fake news. This latter currently costs us taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars, and relies on computer modelling that can’t even be sure if it will snow tomorrow.

Gentle reader may guess where the vested interests lie.

Saint Thomas of Canterbury

Behind Saint Thomas More, my primary political hero, lies today’s saint, Thomas à Becket, after whom he was named. The coincidences are numerous. Both were born in London’s Cheapside; both trained as lawyers; each rose with reputation for genius and probity, to become Chancellor of England and the King’s right hand; and fell, for Christian principle, defending the freedom and independence of the Church against impositions by the civil power. Both were, in the end, murdered by the royal henchmen. The kings in question — Henry II and Henry VIII — were neither of them mere custodians of their realms. Both were ambitious, both credited by nature with extraordinary gifts of intelligence, energy, and personality; with a terrifying charismatic charm, when they chose to display it. Neither could bear contradiction.

Power went to their heads. Henry VIII became, by degrees, one of the true monsters of history; Henry II was a more slippery case. He had his own Saint Thomas directly murdered, not judicially murdered after a show trial. Later, in affected remorse, he allowed himself to be publicly whipped for his crime; then cleverly bought into Thomas à Becket’s spreading martyr’s cult for his own political purposes.

The great achievement of Henry Tudor was to initiate the great schism of western Christendom, by his seizure of all Church estates. Henry Plantagenet’s had been to lay the foundations of English Common Law, and supporting institutions of modern governance. To those who worship state power, in the “Whig interpretation,” both kings were “on the side of history” — that schoolboy history of “progress” and “enlightenment”; the history that every conscientious Catholic is on the wrong side of.

Today’s Idlepost is actually a footnote to yesterday’s. It turns on a passage from the First Book of Samuel (or “First Kings” in your Douays): the eighth chapter, verse 10 through 18 or so. The Israelites want a king. Samuel tells them prophetically what kings are all about. They want a Covenant, not with their Lord, but with a law-giving king, as every other nation. They long to be “normal.”

Do not be confused by offices and stations: “the king” will stand for any national power.

In Christian or in ancient Hebrew terms, the Covenant is between God and His people. It is not, as earthly kings have long maintained, between God and any nation state. There is no “divine right,” of kings, or of electorates.

The officers of state are only officers of state, and themselves must answer to the highest power — not above but alongside their peoples. In Christian terms, they are answerable to Christ, through the Church he founded; to the Spirit that animates that Church; to God in the universal Kingship of Christ.

Let me be plainer. The Covenant is not a collectivist arrangement. It is actually the opposite of a collectivist arrangement, and was so from the beginning. The true Christian teaching stands in anticipation of, and opposition to, the ideals of that “Reformation,” which worked themselves out as a spiritual as well as contractual relation between the People and the State (exalted in “Americanism”). The Covenant is instead with persons, both vertically in their relations with God, and horizontally in their relations with each other: cor ad cor loquitur. To love God and to love thy neighbour: that is the whole teaching. Everything follows from that.

This is a politics in opposition to politics; a politics that produces martyrs, for the principle at its heart cannot be explained to the Princes of this World.

Flores martyrum

A Jewish friend — sincere and observant and at the time trending from “conservative” to “orthodox” — once described to me the condition of Jewry. His people were “chosen,” as everyone knows. But what they don’t know is how stressful that is.

“Were G-d to say, ‘You are now unchosen’, we would all walk.”

This was, I believe, an attempt at humour. (“Where would the Jews be without it?” he also said.) Later, I learnt it is an old joke. And grasped: that the humour is not blasphemous, but self-deprecating.

Nevertheless it is dicey, for the audience may not appreciate an article of faith. It is that God has the Majesty. Wisdom lies in obedience. And deeper it lies in the contemplation of God’s ways, which at the surface may seem to make no sense at all; to be arbitrary, tyrannical. As instead are the ways of men, when men resolve to play God, forgetting that they lack His omniscience.

As Herod who, in the “infancy narratives,” resolves to secure his kingship by the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. (See also, here.) For this is what worldly power does, when it feels threatened.

The event is not mentioned in Josephus, but was typical of the many Herodine atrocities that the “secular” historians did record. By the biblical scholars, the numbers are contested — not the thousands upon thousands of murdered babies in lurid Syriac, then mediaeval accounts. For as the scholars like to say, dryly, “Bethlehem was a small town.” There couldn’t have been more than a few dozen children under the age of two, in all of its environs. But, “Not that many killed,” makes a poor news headline.

Put it rather in the words of Jeremiah: “A voice in Ramah was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”

As to large numbers, I’m often given to reflect on the ten-millions of “holy innocents” that we have slaughtered, under the rule not of Herod but of liberal and progressive thinking — something vastly more evil than Herod in its effects and pretensions.

Why did God allow Herod’s slaughter to happen? This is a question often asked by the glib, who would like to transfer Herod’s guilt to the Almighty, by way of excusing themselves from belief. Among the questions that answer that question is, “Why did God allow you to have an abortion?”

But of course He did not. The plural “you” in this reformulation put her and himself in God’s place, and that is what followed. It is what invariably follows when the human is substituted for the divine will: an atrocity. The choice is life or death, and therefore Isaiah: “Choose life.”

The Feast of the Holy Innocents can be found in the Leonine Sacramentary of the fifth century, along with the first formal ordering of Gregorian chant within the Church Calendar (a proof that all were flourishing long before). To my mind, it was brilliantly placed on this fourth day of Christmas, to invoke the martyrs “after Stephen,” who came in fact before Stephen: “the martyrs before the martyrs,” as it were — the (innumerable) martyrs for Christ in the Old dispensation. I mean, those who died for Christ, and may continue to die for Christ, all unknowing. This Old dispensation is taken up in the New: for yes they, too, are surely our martyrs.

It is a sequence of Sacrifice that extends out of time, woven of the supernatural threads that bound the first woman and the first man.

Christ came to break this demonic cord, that pulls us down; to rescue us. He “chose” to rescue us. In that sense we, the wicked Gentiles, were “chosen” as the wicked Jews had been chosen. To “walk” is not to escape this “tyranny”; it is instead to choose drowning rather than be saved.

Mark that date

“No one at Calvary was consulting a book.”

(And no one at Bethlehem, either. There were no missals yet.)

This is one of the many little sayings that I’ve acquired from backward-looking, anti-intellectual, Latin-singing deplorables through the years. The sort of people who may have voted for Trump, even though they thought he was a disgusting liberal. Who plod away at their retrogade religion, even when discouraged by the boss in Rome. Who are not very smart; who don’t know any better. Who observe the antiquated Calendar of the Church, having, it seems, nothing better to do. Soft, when the world goes hard; hard, when the world goes soft. Whose minds indeed wander from the worldly things. Who think the Word precedes the world, and that the most important event in history — the only thing of immortal importance — happened twenty centuries ago. Who aren’t even clinging to their Bibles and their guns, except when challenged. Because the Word transcends them; a Word before all words. “Space cadets,” you might call us; yet disrespectful to the rocket scientists.

Saint John — the Apostle and Evangelist; author of Gospel, Epistles, Apocalypse; the “Theologos,” the first “Doctor of the Church”; witness to the Transfiguration; him who was placed by Christ’s right side at the Last Supper; and at Christ’s feet before the Cross; to whose care Jesus entrusted his own Mother; the disciple “whom Jesus loved”; the only one of the original Twelve to die of natural causes. (At Ephesus.)

Just to be clear: that John.

I play favourites, too; Saint John is the first place I go in the Bible. No matter how many times I read it, or hear it read, the opening of the Fourth Gospel electrifies me. It is as the universe in its totality bursting from the infinitesimal “cosmic egg.”

Except, we go deeper:

In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum. …

We are there, “in the beginning,” once again, and in the flip of a few pages we are there again, at our end:

And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the First and the Last:

I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore; and have the keys of Hell and of Death.

The 27th of December, 3rd day of Christmas, Feast of St John. … Mark that date.

Protomartyr chronicles

The idea would be, just as the world is shaking off its holiday binges, and heading out for the Boxing Day sales, we of the Midnight Mass and perhaps the three Christ-Masses march back to the church, with our wee mites (if any) in our entourage. And this, for the celebration of the first Christian martyr: the hallowed Feast of Stephen. And, take half the money we would have blown on things we didn’t need and only slightly wanted, adding it instead to the Christmas collections for the poor; or for the priests so they may commission new and more glorious vestments, and continue to upgrade our worship in God-facing Latin from the ancient rite; and perhaps, fix the bleeding roof.

Verily, for today, the day after Christmas, I am trying to imagine what it would be like to be a good Catholic. I mean, of course, a serious one; not a monk or nun, but living in the world. And of course, my list is just starting. (There are commandments in addition to the giving of alms, and church attendance.)

Now, I’m not a very good example of a Catholic, myself. It is among my failings that I get churched-out, from a deep past of inobservance, whose habits will not die quietly. Often I must kick myself out of Sunday-morning torpor; and my confessor knows what a strain it is, to remind his dragging penitent that there is — to give but one example — a Mass every day. And that it is the very place to go, for strength to lift such burdens as have fallen to one’s lot.

Though I fail in the positives, I can supply some of the negatives readily. For I am allergic to the shopping malls, and feel no temptation towards the Amazon addiction which has replaced it in many of the worldlings, according to their media. Rather my partiality is to the knowing work of human hands: the artist’s hands, the surgeon’s hands, the priest’s hands. I love the low Latin Mass in its whispers; the raising of the chalice; the moment when everything else is stripped away. I hate crowds, alas, even those of my fellow Christians. I crave peace and quiet; the music of good order.

There are sins I have entirely given up. Not, however, because I am so holy, but because I got sick of committing them; and tired of the associated self-loathing.

But that is just me, and each other person is his own peculiar bundle of dim light, and of recalcitrant sinning. Each has failures of his own to work out, and while every one of us has earned a hanging, who has had some opportunity in life, there is still time. The “worst Catholic in the world” can still try for a little improvement before his number is called in.

Saint Stephen’s feast is a kind of test; as it always was — beginning for Saint Stephen. It is true: God “led him into temptation” — the very real temptation to disavow Our Lord, in the hope of cheating death. But death, in the end, will not anyway be cheated, and we each owe a life. And Saint Paul checked cloaks for the men who would stone this first of innumerable obstinates, who through the centuries have stood in his position; have stood their ground against the pleasures of this world. A “test,” yes, but the word “temptation” follows on its heels. The standard to which we are held is high, but Grace and Mercy shall be there to catch us.

Every day, remember you must die; that there is nothing in this world that you can take with you. Those are the terms, and it really does not matter if you don’t like them; if you think they are unfair. It was unfair that you were ever born. But you got used to it somehow, no? … God is Love, and Love is no mere fairness.

The Cross had nothing to do with “fair.” As neither did the birth in Bethlehem; there was no possible way we “deserved” it.

That is what I keep telling myself, and if I seem a tad forward in telling others, too, you will have to forgive me. For among my obnoxious habits is, thinking aloud.

Ad pastores

And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

Saint Nicholas pray for us

My favourite “modern” Christmas song is, “Fairytale of New York,” by the Pogues. (Yes.) I have it not on disc, but listen every Christmas Eve on YouTube. If I had to explain why I so love it, the spell would be broken. Suffice to say, it is perfect in its kind. There are people, even in New York, and these days even in Ireland, who can make no sense of it. This is their constitutional right. But there ought to be a law to prevent it from being “covered” or re-recorded.

Well, that is my salute to pop music for the year. There is not much else I find bearable; though compared to the happyface commercial jingles, I’d prefer ring-in-the-nose punk. There are rings in Hell, as we are reliably informed by an Italian poet; there are rings beneath rings, lower. The song I mentioned could perhaps be described as punkish, though disturbed by joyous “celtic” lilt. It has a Catholic sensibility. As much could be said for François Villon. And Dante is that sensibility, in shock vertical.

As the infamous Oscar Wilde famously said (or shall we make that vice versa?) Catholicism is a religion for saints and sinners; for respectable people, Anglican will do.

This spoken from a Paris dive, while the balladeer of Reading gaol was perishing from meningitis, after a life that could not be said to have ended well, by any bourgeois standard. Yet from the Catholic view, a tremendous deathbed recovery.

It is not generally acknowledged, at the present day, that man is in a fallen condition, and that men (including women) can behave very badly. There are moments, however, when we are reminded, “Yes we can!” But also moments when the worst sinners (and Wilde had a fairly good run) turn to Christ. And this because, there is no other place to turn, when you have seen through the Devil. Money is little use to the dying. Prospects for concupiscence are grim, … though I’ve seen at least one old perishing customer, tied down like Gulliver with hospital tubes, still valiantly trying to seduce a nurse. And (I don’t expect you to believe this, gentle reader), nearly succeeding.

But, heroism alone cannot get you to Heaven.

I have a friend who calls himself, “the world’s worst Catholic.” That, too, is a nice try. He’s actually quite observant, by contemporary tests; a faithful and diligent husband and father; who to my knowledge has yet to do anything that could earn him a prison term. But he has some insights, and probably some secrets he would only tell a priest. Whereas, I’ve known some real baddies in my time, several of them Catholic. I’ll leave God to decide which one was worst. (Imagine my surprise when I discover that I was.)

The prim live in a world of illusion. Parkdale, for all its little faults, isn’t prim. It is, I suspect — compared to the more prosperous neighbourhoods — fuller of people freed from illusions about themselves. And too, of people who have done prison time. But that, in itself, will not get them to Heaven.

On the altar, tonight, we will see the Christ child. He comes at midnight, the perfect Sacrifice; the most astonishing Gift to fallen human nature. He comes as the most paradoxical Thing.

He hath come, and will come, to shew strength with his arm; to scatter the proud. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.” The most unlikely people see it.

Merry Christmas to all of those, and to all the others.

Of Christmas past & Christmas future

Walking into a bookstore on Yonge Street, I had one of my flashback experiences. I reported it immediately to my friend Paul, whose store it is (or soon, once was):

“Here I am in Toronto, back in the days when Eliot’s Bookstore was still open. As the hippies used to say, ‘It is all so real’.”

Paul is among the few who could understand what I was saying. After forty years in the second-hand book trade, he understands exactly. (I witnessed about thirty of them.)

His property taxes had been doubled, and would soon be quintupled, putting him out of business. Three floors of books were being sold off, basically for free, to diminish his immense disposal problem. Most other bookstores closed when their rents were driven up, as part of the universal “gentrification” process. Paul had survived because, by reckless sacrifice, he had come to own his uptown building — a narrow Edwardian shopfront which had once had seedy flats above it.

Were he younger, “I would have found a way to fight the bastards.” Now he could only put up signs, calling the mayor names.

He had turned down multi-million dollar offers for this building, with its cracked plaster walls and uneven floors and irreproducible charm. He’d told the real estate agents to go to hell — he intended to remain a bookseller till death.

“Don’t bother doubling your offer, I’ll only tell you to go to hell again.”

When one of them looked politely puzzled, he repeated it in Greek.

But now, with the help of the municipal politicians — who blather on about the importance of family business — they’ve got him. Sell and be rich; don’t, and you go bankrupt. Soon the whole block will be more glass and steel, because you can’t pay the property tax in that neighbourhood unless you go up thirty storeys.

I have flashforward experiences, too. The most memorable was the last time I visited London, England, and was touring one of my old neighbourhoods, much changed by glass and steel from the sooted brick I fondly remembered. My thought was, “Here I am in London, in the distant future. Here I am among all these people, who weren’t even born when I lived here. Here I am, the ghost of Christmas past.”

The old working-class types used to wear ties, out of respect for themselves and their neighbours; the shopkeepers wore aprons and never forgot your name. The millennials now dress “casual,” at perhaps twice the cost. Only the losers have to work in retail. Winners work in “networks.”

I read on the Internet where a Salvation Army bell-ringer was beaten up for wishing someone a “Merry Christmas.” The Sally Anne are being driven out of the shopping precincts, not only because they are explicitly Christian. They are also déclassé.

The stores all play the Christmas music, because it is good for business. It has been tested: it makes people buy. (I wonder if it worked on Skinner’s rats?) But the tape spools must be carefully edited to eliminate all traditional carols, which have Christian references. Instrumental versions may, however, still be heard in some of the more cultured, upmarket places.

Money is like Dettol. It has a sterilizing effect. It gives you the choice between cash and character. And if you choose wrong, it phases you out. It cleans up your neighbourhood: polishes away all those biologically-scented human peculiarities; functions like a high-tech, perfumed latrine. “Identity politics” cleans out any remaining personal identities. We have incinerators for the corpses.

Poverty was our past; money is our future. In the future everything will be clean.

But I have faith in the human ability to make things dirty again. I feel confident that some inconveniences will survive.

The gift of obstinacy

Mother Cabrini was a little ball of holy fire. Standing five foot, from her heels to the highest ridge on her cape, and softly spoken, she was not formidable until you crossed her. God had given her a mission, and by God it would be done. It was not the mission she had selected for herself: to be some sort of teacher in China. Rather, with a most unexpected but very useful letter from the Pope, she had been sent to America.

Help was needed for the Italian immigrants in the ghettos of Boston and New York — and of Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, New Orleans, St Louis, San Francisco, and so forth. Help: not only spiritual but material. They had nor priests nor even bread, sometimes; just a surplus of bedbugs and cockroaches in their crowded tenements. The “American dream” hadn’t hit them yet. Most would probably have been better off, had they never left home.

She arrived herself with six sisters in tow, and the usual nothing; and was, by the first bishop she met, told to get back on the ship that brought her. She paid no attention to him, of course. (“I have a letter from the Pope.”) Even within the sprawling, mostly poor American Catholic community, circa 1889, Italians were considered a nuisance; a pain in the gluteus maximus. Even the Irish looked down on them. They tended to be dirty and sickly and hapless. Mother Cabrini looked the part: herself weak and usually ill, all her life. But she paid no attention to that, either.

Her mission, to start, was to those beloved Italians. Finding them was no trouble at all: “just follow the smell.” The mere sight of the little woman seemed to change everything. She, and then her growing cohort, would walk past Italian bakers and grocers and be loaded down with gifts of food; with medicines donated by Italian pharmacists; with whatever they needed: carpe diem! Within a couple of decades they had founded hospitals, schools, orphanages — each by the dozen.

We forget that Christian missions were the “welfare state,” until they began to be appropriated by the Servile State, only a few decades ago; and that although Catholics remained a fairly small minority, and relatively skint of resources, they provided services out of proportion to their size in every American city, and to all comers, whether Catholic or not. Look at any large-scale map of an inner city from a century ago, and see the truth of this inscribed in the titles of the many, often large, and unmistakably religious eleemosynary institutions. Even today, the prefix “Saint” continues to append to so many of the buildings they erected on their widow mites — with donated labour to build, and volunteer staff to operate, and daily offerings of cooked food and hand-sewn clothes and nickels and dimes from anonymous parishioners, in the face of real prejudice. (We forget that e.g. the Ku Klux Klan was founded to persecute Catholics and Jews; Blacks were an afterthought.)

And the Protestants copied them, when they saw how it was done. … And yes, yes, there were scrooges who gave nothing, and there always will be: making the argument for bureaucracy and taxation and the Servile State. Who give nothing and whose slogan is, “Make the rich pay!”

Everyone remembers Mother Cabrini today, not only Italo-Americans. Or rather, everyone should. For the works of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus were soon extended much beyond the Italian community. They spread like the works of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, all around the world.

There is no such thing as an economist who can explain this.

Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first USA citizen to be canonized (she got her citizenship papers in due course), was an easy call. The number of miracles witnessed in her person, and accomplished in her name, overwhelmed the “devil’s advocates.” But these, merely additional to the grand miracle of the life of this gentle, tiny, very obstinate lady, who took no for an answer only to sin. (It is unfortunate that her name is currently being used in the dishonest political propaganda for illegal immigration: for that had never been her mission.)

I mention Mother Cabrini today only because it is her one hundredth anniversary. She was struck down by dysentery while wrapping Christmas presents for the poor; died the 22nd of December, 1917. But she is still at work, praying for us, and we ought to thank her occasionally.

Naughty & nice

For Christmas this year, at the United Nations, the USA will be “taking names.” The vote comes tomorrow, on a resolution to condemn the United States in the General Assembly for moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel’s capital, which is Jerusalem. With her characteristic charm and candour, Nikki Haley mentioned this yesterday. She’ll be taking the names of those who are naughty or nice, to my favourite superpower.

For years, decades, centuries it seems, the United States has been serving not only as sugar daddy to NATO and the like, but as meals-on-wheels to most of the world’s nasty little third-world despotisms — governed, almost invariably, by Leftists of some sort. And, getting abuse in return, instead of gratitude, for all this “foreign aid.” We might want to refer the matter to the ACLU, which objects to Christian displays in public. By comparison to any other world power, the USA has been downright Franciscan. Too, the Americans not only host but generously fund UN operations, at cost not only to their national Treasury, but to the municipal services of the City of New York. And again, they get all this lip in return. Why, Santa, why?

The fear, of course, is that if the Americans don’t pay, the Russians and Chinese will step into the breach. But this is just what we should want. An important part of the late Mr Reagan’s strategy, in winning the Cold War, was to assist the USSR in piling up expenses. The arms race also helped. As the brilliant George P. Schultz explained, much that Washington could afford, overstretched Moscow. Thus the military spending spree, until they said, “Uncle.”

As for Nikki Haley, well, I have been half in love with her since the day, four Christmases ago, when a friend showed me a Facebook post by the Governor of South Carolina, as she then was. “I must have been good, Santa gave me a Beretta PX4 Storm,” she boasted, with a picture of this elegant little firearm, which fits so nicely in a lady’s purse. The sort of thing a woman needs, I now reflect, while escorting Harvey Weinstein to the police station, in his pajamas. (After calling the tabloids to come and take pictures.) A very pretty pistol indeed: the Italians sure know how to design them. And engineer them, too: packs an even bigger punch than Saint Nicholas of Myra.

I love it when the Americans go John Wayne. It bodes well for the peace of the world. Or perhaps, Clint Eastwood in his Spaghetti Westerns (I don’t know much about movies). For now that Hollywood has gone over entirely to the dark side, we need better theatre from Uncle Sam. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. And some of the best men are women.

The white Christmas blues

The idea that ideas have consequences has had many unfortunate consequences. They were never the intended ones. Disciples are a pain. They understand little of what their master is saying, and go off on tangents. This is why schemes for brotherly love always end in fratricidal warfare. The means to the end become the contention; the end quickly fades from view. Reductionist “prophets,” such as Marx to the Marxists, contribute only by getting the main point wrong. Anything they happen to get right will be twisted.

Schemes to eliminate oppression by “class,” “race,” “sex,” or whatever, lie behind most of our violent convulsions — which continue until there is no blood left to be shed between contending parties. Then we get a tentative truce.

A friend forwards an item from UK. It seems the authorities at University College London, in the course of promising that the campus would stay open despite snow, mentioned some prospect of a “white Christmas.” As Rod Liddle reports:

“Oh, the furore. Oh, the anguish and outrage.”

He quotes one of the deranged undergraduates: “You know who else dreamt of a white campus? Adolf Hitler, that’s who! Disgusting!” Another demanded an immediate retraction and apology, accusing the college of purposefully overlooking the whole history of suffering and oppression. Et cetera.

“And what did UCL do? Oh, come on. You know what it did. The cringing apology. …”

I blame George Steiner. He was the white man who, half a century ago, wrote Language and Silence. It became the standard account of how the German language and culture had led to Auschwitz; about how men who could enjoy Shakespeare and Goethe, Bach and Mozart in their leisure hours, could murder millions without compunction in the course of their dayjobs. Moreover, language was inadequate to describe the horror of it all. In order not to acquiesce, we must all (except Steiner) remain perpetually silent.

My mildly satirical précis is meant to emphasize that the book was nonsense. The idea that the German language carried some special virus was later expanded by Edward Said to indict all Europeans, then the chargesheet was spread to all whites. The cultural “evolved” into the genetic — an exact parody of Nazism — and now we are all instructed to shut up and be punished in the “narrative” of payback. The rest of the Indo-Europeans are being diligently added to the target list, by the academic crackpots who have noticed that the Sanskrit classics are also “supremacist”; soon someone may notice the Chinese. And it is true: every literature of which we have record contains the bitter seed of fallen man. Only those who can claim a cultural history that is completely blank, have some chance at exemption.

Rather, why blame Steiner? I only dismiss him as a posturing self-promoter and unscholarly buffoon. The trahison des clercs is an old story; there have been men like him on campus for centuries. The reduction of the welter of events to a single dominant intellectual absurdity was, after all, the theme of the Reformation. (That is my current single dominant idea.) Beyond, it is the blame game of the ages.

It is to be regretted that when Language and Silence came out, the majority of critics were obsequious. Some grumbled that in the area of their own expertise, the book was silly, but assumed it was solid in other respects. So far as I know, only Anthony Burgess had the guts to suggest (respectfully, of course) that the whole thesis, from beginning to end, was unrelieved bullshit.

Even then, fifty years ago, we lacked a janitorial infrastructure of the educated and courageous; and the disciples followed as a great wall of muck.

The laughter of hope

Towards the end of the Elizabeth Anscombe edition of remarks Ludwig Wittgenstein collected in a shoe-box (entitled, Zettel), there are some glorious oddments. My eye just cast upon one of my old favourites:

“Numbers are not fundamental to mathematics.”

It is a long time since I first obtained, then wrestled with this book. Yet I distinctly recall my laughter when I came to this phrase. It was not mocking laughter, of the sort cultivated in our modern academic asylums; the strange mad sarcastic laughter of dissonance. It was what I would call “the laughter of hope.” Suddenly an obstacle to understanding is removed, and one laughs in surprise at what one finds under or behind it. It is the eureka laughter.

In six words this Wittgenstein has eviscerated not only Russell, but possibly Frege. Or rather, he has exposed the mental blockage, by which “logical” and “scientific” man constructs a world, and peoples it with objects, described by their “properties” — confusing what lies glibly on the surface with what has lain profoundly, “underneath.” We think, for instance, that math is all about numbers. But no, the reverse of this is true. We only use numbers as a means to understand math. They are like tags or labels in a museum collection, things tied or pasted to the sui generis exhibits themselves.

We glimpse conceptual unities, not with numbers but through them. Yet we only begin to describe what we have seen, and can never make an end of it. There can be no analogy to an absolute; no metaphors to do it any part of justice. And this we must remember in giving it a name.

Similarly, we imagine the “infinite” from a projection of the “finite.” In fact, we can’t see it, because we have confused our multiplying counters with real things. So we become accustomed to talking nonsense. “Infinity” is a word we made up, as is “zero,” as are “one,” “two,” and “three.”

“Two and two makes four” is confidently asserted, but cannot be proved. It can only be demonstrated. “Four less two leaves two” is hardly proof. It is instead a circularity.

This is to my mind why such a concept as the Holy Trinity is lost upon the moderns. Presented as God, Christ, Spirit, it can make some sense to any peasant; but the “threeness” of it only leads us astray. It is a quality in the Divine that has nothing to do with number; it is indeed an impenetrable Mystery. Or shall I say a mystical fountain, gushing forth: “I am that I am.”

The ancient Hebrews were rightly reticent of naming what could not be named. Only, I think, in the Messiah did God, for our salvation, “name Himself.”

He would come, He has come, He will come: now there’s a trinity. But there is no three in it. Past, present, future are not three separable things. We cannot describe Time from within Time, nor understand it any better as an infinite recession in two directions from our own “fixed” point. In the moment we begin to apprehend it, it passes away.

Towards Christmas, if perhaps Advent is observed, the Gift comes irresistibly into view. It is nothing like a box with ribbons; nothing like a package with a present inside. Nothing in the womb of Our Lady is reducible to “an item” like that. It is Gift in the absolute, as our own lives are absolute Gift: a totality that cannot be reduced to pieces. It is a mysterious Event, that transcends events. We can only pretend to accept it or reject it, for it simply and immortally IS.


POSTSCRIPTUM. … I am already in receipt of correspondence expressing alarm that I may be endorsing the view of Antonio Spadaro (the progressive Italian Jesuit), who says that in his (appalling) theology, two plus two may sometimes equal five. This is not anything like what I meant above. Some things are so absolutely [bad-word] obvious that the joke is, they cannot be proved. They can be demonstrated, however, and work every time, and must therefore be accepted by those who have not gone mad. But there is no deep philosophy here. It’s only, 2+2=4.

We might take this a little farther and assert that, by extension, all “mathematical proofs” are essentially circular, but this would require more energy than is available to me today. This does not mean the “proofs” (actually demonstrations) are wrong. Quite the opposite: a proposition is shown to be inevitable, by extension from the very first and simplest numerical postulates; i.e. it is shown to be “as true as, 2+2=4.” Thus, it must be accepted, on its own terms, by everyone who is not insane.

Of course, there is mad and mad. Some people go off their nut from biochemical causes. These can sometimes be treated with drugs. But some others go off it by choice, and meds cannot help them.