Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Catholics

From time to time, a wave of filth slaps into my electronic box. Sometimes it is from self-described Catholics.

One might call it “criticism,” but that would be droll. The letters are all accusation and smear; I can find nothing in them resembling an argument. A wave, I say: and I can easily guess that something propelled it.

When I bother to check, I quickly find the answer. It comes from a comment thread somewhere, or equivalent. Someone who, invariably, did not understand what I wrote, probably because he never got past the first paragraph, has “expressed himself”; and then the queue forms of others wishing to express themselves in just the same way. Each assumes that the initial smear-artist correctly characterized my argument and tone. They show no evidence of having read the first paragraph, themselves. There is a competitive atmosphere. Each correspondent vies to exceed the others in vulgarity, until they all get bored and go away.

I can hardly complain, for I see this also happens to everyone else who contributes to public discussion — unless they have the luck to go unnoticed. It is, if gentle reader will, a “sign of the times,” as our society sinks deeper into the stinking mire. On the university campuses, we now have the physical embodiment of those comments threads, as a legion of the constantly offended offer violence to shut intelligent speakers down. On sports fields, people are even offering “comments” on a national anthem.

The nice term for this is “identity politics.” Mary Eberstadt, a writer and thinker I have long admired, has just written an excellent piece on the phenomenon under title, “The Primal Scream of Identity Politics” (Weekly Standard). She traces it very plausibly to the destruction of the family through the progressive innovations of the last half-century.

My own views run along this line. We have people from broken families whose identities are now acquired from other sources; people by now extremely uncomfortable in their own skins, who seek to blame someone. But all whom they could validly blame abandoned them in childhood; left them prey to the demonic influences of the very ideologies that brought collapse. Self-organized through the new social media, they now travel and hunt in packs. Or alternatively, moulder on opioids. Mandatory progressive schooling has likewise left them inaccessible to reason.

“It takes more than six weeks to make a socialist,” I once wrote, by way of explaining a sudden electoral reversal, that had happened in the space of a short campaign. “It takes a whole unhappy childhood.”

I was trying to distinguish the hard radicals, from the casuals who suddenly decide to go along. Not all, of course, come from technically broken homes; but all were raised in a place where familial customs were breaking down. People are lost; spiritually hungry. It does not follow that they will find good food.

There are the frightening developments, such as those on campus, but too there is the background noise of social disorder. Catholics are also subject to this noise, in the absence of any monastic silence. They acquire prefabricated ideas from the popular culture, never having heard them opposed. They, too, buy into “identity politics,” making their religion into a kind of ethnicity, while forming their internal demands. The Catholic Church is among their “entitlements”; they have the “right” to turn it into whatever they want it to be; and they want another reflection of the degraded culture.

The schism today is not between Catholic and Protestant. It is rather between the perpetual Christian teaching, and the latest sordid vogue. To the vogue Catholic, a convert is an illegal immigrant; he is a cultural appropriator of something they imagine themselves to own, like “blackness,” or a “gender.” In waves, I get their letters.

Our Church has saved up so much teaching to do — to people no longer capable of listening.

Protestants

I wonder if there are any believing Protestants left in Greater Parkdale, or other large American cities. (There are precious few Catholics.) I know they may still be found outside. I have been amazed, sometimes, to find — these days usually through funerals, alas — that there are still Protestant churches in small Ontario towns, with real life in them, and honest faith: I think genuine Christians, alas not Catholic, who by the circumstances of birth and upbringing were never likely to become so. Some of these are among my readers, and from their letters I also learn respect for them. Surely Our Lord prefers the company of Protestant faithful, to Catholic faithless.

My own people, going back some centuries on both sides, were of this dispersion. Some were fanatical and destructive — of the iconoclastic kind that smashed Christian art across much of Europe in the old days; demolished chapels, torched libraries and so forth.

Some, too, were saintly, as my “Aunt Buddie” of beloved memory: Mildred Holmes of New Waterford, Cape Breton, church organist at Calvin United for sixty years. A peace maker: the Catholics owed her. She taught keyboard to three generations of them; sometimes herself played at their weddings — because, in her view, they were her fellow Christians, and good friends. She was a woman of indefatigable good humour and kindness, whose Bibles (she owned several) each showed the marks of constant use. If she didn’t get to Heaven, then I might wonder if it’s worth going there.

When looking back over the catastrophe of the Reformation — the greatest, most enduring catastrophe to afflict the Western Church, unless it was the earlier schism with the East — I think on the legacy of fine Protestants. They were born into the Protestant traditions; they are hardly responsible for events that happened generations before they were born. If I think Luther and Calvin were heretics — typical late mediaeval heretics from a period of decadence — it does not follow that I despise their progeny. It could not follow, for the principles on which these Reformers insisted have for the most part been long abandoned; and the corruption they alleged in the Catholic Church has been addressed, again and again.

The Reformation was not the doing of errant theologians, however. So many like them had come to nothing before. It was instead the doing of secular politicians — Princes who embraced, or pretended to embrace, Protestant principles as their excuse for appropriating Church property in their realms. (These were the first “nationalizations.”) It was such men as Henry VIII of England, and Gustav I of Sweden, who paid off their debts and cynically bought bishops and squires with the proceeds, turning abbeys and monasteries into a landscape of grand country homes and tame parish churches. The same, writ small, in smaller realms across Germany and northern Europe. And for their deeds and excesses, Luther and Calvin cannot be blamed, who were at least earnest. Yet they and their followers came to participate in the fiendish anti-Catholic propaganda that persisted through the centuries, putting the recovery of unity farther and farther from reach, dissolving Christendom into warring camps.

Yet the “ethno-phyletism” — the tribal conflation of Church and State not only in Protestant but in Catholic domains — was not the intention of Princes, either. They did not foresee the consequences of what they were doing, as the spirit of Statism advanced. Most, as Luther himself, began backpedalling desperately against the initial disorders. In their own interests, the rulers wanted things both ways: to impose a stable doctrine to keep the domestic peace, while bearing no obedience themselves. The Devil was in it, and the hell-gates were opened.

I have tried in three paragraphs to summarize my view on what the Reformation was really about. (From a slightly different angle I try also, here.) The history of sin is vast, and even today being constantly rewritten. In many ways we are now better placed, far from events five centuries ago, to see more clearly what was at stake, and what were the true motives. In other ways, we are blinded by our indifference.

Those of us who are Catholic today — insofar as we take our religion seriously — cannot possibly celebrate events that diminished our Church, and caused unspeakable human suffering. Did God and the Serpent join to celebrate the schism of Adam, at the five-hundredth anniversary of the Fall of Man?

And should we now congratulate ourselves, that our faith has so weakened on both sides, that we can strike smug ecumenical poses?

Let us anew love the sinner, and condemn the sin. It is Our Lord we follow, and in the end, we can only bury our differences in Him.

Carnavalito

My difficulty in the Canadian media, or perhaps gentle reader will call it a missed opportunity, began many years ago and was properly diagnosed by a kindly editorial page editor, who had to field innumerable complaints about my works. People objected to my “conservative” politics, he said. But that wasn’t why they hated me. The reason was aesthetic. One is allowed to be a “conservative” in the media, he said, but if one is, one must also be a redneck and a drooler; a “man of the people,” as it were. But I was some kind of highbrow elitist conservative. There’s no category for that, and it upsets people.

Himself mildly Tory, and Scottish from Aberdeen, and remarkably civilized — well-bred and well-read — he flourished for a time by keeping his opinions strictly to himself. His editorials gave no hint what they might be. Eventually one must have come out, for now he is working at the Shakespeare Festival. I won’t name him; he needs to keep that job.

Similarly at the foundation of the so-called National Post. (Imagine naming a newspaper after our dysfunctional post office.) It was going to be a “conservative” newspaper. The first editor was thus entreated to deal with me, as one of the country’s few known “conservatives.” An Albertan (Canada’s answer to Texans), publicly identified with the Right himself, he took an immediate dislike. In a press interview in the Toronto Scar (Left-populist) he went on about the sort of conservative who would not be welcome in the new paper. That would be a sherry-drinking intellectual in a tweed jacket. Other hints suggested he was referring expressly to me. I seem to recall the employment of an E-word. Perhaps it was “elitist.” Might have been “effete.”

I didn’t help matters by replying in a note that people from Edmonton can’t tell the difference between sherry and port.

Effete? … Moi? … Of course I am effete. I have spent sixty-four years working on it.

To my mind, one should make as much distance as one can from any sort of mob. And that is what “populism” represents: mob rule, led by mob rulers, whether nominally Left or Right. This is why I was viscerally opposed to Trump, from my first sight of him as a political candidate — though since I have decided that the alternatives were worse. And he has the best enemies list I have ever seen. That must count for something.

Returning briefly to my extinguished rôle as an “effete conservative” (though I consider myself a howling reactionary), I am delighted to see the election results from Argentina. It would seem the Left-populist, Peronist movement is now so buried, that the only surviving Peronist lives in Rome. I can no more predict the future than can anyone else; I can only hope that they stay buried.

The world, I’ve observed, is going quite mad. I collect new evidence each morning, upon consulting “the news.” We won’t go into that this morning, however.

Instead, we will take this moment to celebrate the Death of Peronism. Raise your port sippers, gentle readers! Don your tweed jackets, and let us dance an elegant carnavalito.

Coffee for the intellectuals

Gobineau, the Prince of Pessimists, to Tocqueville, the last credible optimist, 1856:

“Don’t doubt my religion. If I say I am Catholic, it is the truth. Of course I am not a perfect Catholic, which I regret, though some day I hope to be one, but at least I am a sincere Catholic, Catholic in heart and soul, and if I believed for a moment like you that my historical ideas were in opposition to the Catholic religion, I should give them up immediately.”

I love to mention Count Arthur de Gobineau (such as here), if only because he makes progressive ears curl. Or, he did back when they had some idea who he was; these days they don’t know anything. Like Nietzsche, he is a joy to read, even and perhaps especially when one thinks that everything he writes is wrong, or primly assumes that he is godless.

When Nietzsche, for instance, says that “God is dead,” in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, he is not saying what he seems to be saying. He was the world champion ironist, after all. He is echoing Hegel, who thought this perception a normal part of the Christian experience of redemption. Nietzsche says it again in Also sprach Zarathustra, I gather. A wide chasm, it echoes back and forth. It is an ironical way of hinting that, “God lives.”

There was a time when Nietzsche had only a few dozen readers. Now he has a million who do not understand him. Gobineau is luckier: he once had plenty, but only a few dozen today.

When Gobineau champions the spirit of La Renaissance, in delectably imagined dialogues between historical figures, he is not, as any post-modern will assume, demeaning the Middle Ages. Rather he is demeaning everything that comes after. He exults in such Renaissance “values” as Beauty, Learning, Energy, Force, Manliness. He decries our effeminate counter-values: liberté, égalité, fraternité, … “kultur.” (Someone fetch my Browning.)

World traveller, and world perceiver, speaker and reader of many languages, Gobineau earned the rights to his opinions. And he is generous in sharing them.

He thought, for example, that the Chinese were crass and materialist — like the British. But like Doctor Johnson he thought something could be done, even with a Scotsman, “if he were caught young.”

Really, people should read his Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, rather than the hatchet job in the Wicked Paedia, before offering their opinions. You should see what he thinks about his contemporary Frenchmen. He is an equal-opportunity abuser, at least.

And here’s a Canadian angle. Employed by the Quai d’Orsay, Gobineau was sent to Newfoundland (with side-trips to Cape Breton and Nova Scotia) to vexate hopelessly upon the perpetual fishing dispute between the British, Newfoundlanders, French, and Saint-Pierrais and Miquelonnais — as punishment for refusing to take a post in Peking. This gave him an opportunity to slander us in our outports, too, while making thoughtful observations on regional geography, history, ethnology, and so forth. As often in his marvellous travel sketches, he fails to conceal a sweet-natured affection for the very savages upon whom he heaps racial, creedal, and class epithets. He condemns everyone. But he is also fascinated with everything, everywhere he goes.

His views on the Persians, among whom he lived (as diplomat) for years, precisely match those we find in The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan (1824) — long given to English travellers as a kind of preparation and warning. Gobineau shocked critics who twitched, even then, at the despotism of their rulers, by complaining that the Persians were “too democratic.” He said they had accomplished nothing since the time of Herodotus; that if the British managed to enlist them as allies, they would attack the Russians next morning, be defeated by noon, and side with the Russians by evening. The trick, which he was trying to perform in the interest of France, was to keep them as enemies.

Yes, he is a white supremacist; which is why, I suppose, he reserves the best part of his contempt for white people. His theory, if such it may be called, is ultimately at the service of an aristocratic vision, and thus no practical use to our low-life neo-Nazis. I might summarize it in this way. The Blacks have more rhythm, the Orientals more smarts, and the Whites are the Aristotelian mean. For all I know this may be true.

I recommend we sprinkle the works of Gobineau around all the university safe spaces. They will make heads explode. Or would, if only the heads in question could read. But then, there is hardly a book that could not serve these joyless combustibles as a fuse.

Make it new

The extraordinary presentation of the Old Testament in the liturgy: as a whole library of ancient texts that are all about Christ.

Re-new-al, re-nova-tion, restoration: even the bright lights of the “Renaissance” (a term desperately in need of qualification) knew that making new means going backwards. Backwards towards the new. Newman: “Walking to heaven backwards.” Jesus: “I come not to abolish but fulfil.”

From the vantage of the new we (Christians) can better see the newness in the old; how Virgil Aristotle Plato Homer rise above the oldness. Why sagely Chinamen and Brahmins are redemptive in some partial way; they, too, grasping fragments of the future (and timeless) Christian vision. But it took Christ to show it whole.

Dante is so wonderfully severe; so new. Reading (instead) Piers Plowman in bed last night I thought, Can any poet match Dante in moral severity? Langland is so tolerant, so understanding, so utterly charming, so later. What an enchanting evocation of life in the fourteenth century! But there is a man getting old again.

In a world that rots, we need new. We need to keep it new. That is why mere conservatism can never cut it. We need the full-bodied reactionary attitude; the take-no-prisoners approach of Dante.

Just thinking aloud.

Plain speaking

It is Friday. Lots of gentle readers in desolation this morning (about this, &c); and others in confusion (though only about my last Idlepost). Easy things first.

I seem to have caused much confusion by the word “Modern,” which I’m in the custom of using as a term of abuse. But I used it yesterday as if it were a good thing. Now, all words are contextual, especially in English, and I was juxtaposing “Ancient and Modern,” where Ancient is understood to be the old pagan regimes of Greece and Rome — extremely impressive in their own right — before the historical arrival of Christianity. Hence my allusion to the Battle of the Books (Jonathan Swift’s contribution), on the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes which broke out in the late seventeenth century, in the Académie française, then diverted all of intellectual Europe.

This was perhaps a poor choice of allusion, since it led several readers astray. For the Moderns in that debate were, for the most part, explicitly defending not only the worldview opened by “modern” empirical and material science (as they then understood it), but also that opened by our “modern” empathies. In literature and art, the Moderns were inventing spectacular new genres — from sentimental comedy, to landscape painting. Descending from the freethinking Renaissance humanists, and leading ultimately to Robespierre, they congratulated themselves for their “enlightenment” on these and other fronts. The current liberal and progressive outlook is thus nothing new. It is merely a degeneration of the much older modernism — a version from which the sanity has been “progressively” expunged.

For the purposes of that old Parisian argument, I am roughly of Gottfried Ephraim Lessing’s view, that the Moderns, astride the shoulders of giants, see more, but the Ancients saw better. But to him, and to most of them, modernity begins with printing and allied arts, which made our brave new world possible. The debate itself was essentially post-Christian, with both sides largely overlooking the Middle Ages, which is to say, missing the elephant in the room of European history.

To be sure, the Ancients did not have our technological advantages, but too, the Platonists and Aristotelians (at least) did not have the disadvantage of being mesmerized by technology. There is a philosophia perennis in which they and we both participate, and in this the older classical authors had the temporal advantage of getting there first. They express vividly much that we can only restate, and thus we must be fools to ignore the classics.

What I’m trying to say is that technology is irrelevant: the real division between Ancient and Modern must be placed much farther back in time. It is the difference between the ancient pagan worldview, and what became possible through the definitive revelation of Jesus Christ. In this sense, Cicero is an Ancient, and Augustine a Modern. Swift, I think, in his characteristically provocative way, points towards this. We do not have so much one view then the other, as the two in continuing conflict: a knowledge of the True God, as against a wilful ignorance of Him.

Given my daily self-allotment of two hand-scribbled pages, there will not be room to rehearse my views on the development of Ancient, i.e. Hellenistic and Roman science and technology. Suffice me to say, that it starts shockingly well, then declines into mere engineering and superstition (rather as our “settled science” is doing today). The old pagan world was afflicted with intellectual blockages which the Christian “vision” began to clear. (Mistakes we are now repeating.)

The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century is the direct outgrowth of cosmological speculations in what we currently label the High Middle Ages — built upon the Christian theological insight that the universe God created must make sense. Its philosophical component, however — from Bacon and Descartes to Kant and Heidegger — is unnecessary to the empirical science and applied technology that confers prestige. It is rather the (often brilliant, and sometimes unintentional) re-imposition of the ancient Epicurean and Stoical blinders. Our modern “progress” in this sense consists of moving philosophically and theologically backwards to a pre-Christian age.

I was proposing to redefine Modern in the light of that Christian revolution, which we find at the foundation of “Western Civ.” By this means, I become the Modern, and e.g. the Darwinoids are exposed as Ancients. And the whole notion of “progress” may be casually discarded. “Old Pagan” and “New Christian” would perhaps be plainer terms: a choice between them with no third.

Is everything now clear?

Ancient & modern

Allow me, gentle reader, without mentioning Saint Augustine for a moment, to throw three dates wildly in the air. These will be the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312; the death of the Emperor Justinian in 565; and the death of the Emperor Charlemagne in 814. From first to last we have five centuries to play with here; about the same amount of time we’ve had since what is called the Protestant Reformation — enough room to swing an armadillo. And neatly divisible into two halves, as our own rather abstract “modernity” by what is called the Enlightenment.

Now let us consider the characteristic features of what we call “mediaeval architecture” — towered facades, colonnaded ambulatories, subterranean crypts, interior vaulting, and the whole vocabulary that describes each subsequent development in the art of building, founded upon the design of Christian basilicas in Late Antiquity.

The dates I gave correspond to collapses. The first is a collapse of the pagan imperium, the second of the Christian effort to restore it, the third of the first focused scheme to unite Western Europe. But each end also represents a new beginning, in which forces concentrated by political means were released, to spread as conscious or unconscious ideals in the formation of a geographically Eurocentric order which for want of any plausible alternative we may term “Christendom.”

Yes, I am playing schoolteacher this morning, there being no formal classes at the seminary round the corner on Thursdays. From the height of an eagle (or drone) I am inviting a view over the formative landscape of what will constitute our civilization, itself built upon the foundations of a deeper antiquity; a kind of “New Testament,” if thou wilt, laid over the “Old,” as it were. Not the coming of Christ, which slices history neatly into years before and after the manger scene at Bethlehem, but the full institution of Christianity — the Church — as a tangible and unavoidable presence over a vast area whose frontiers, as the pagan Roman, suffer constant incursion from barbaric tribes who will need to be converted. And will always do thereafter.

Let’s bring Augustine into this, and perhaps his contemporaries, as Jerome and many more, in the succession of Fathers of the Church. In looking for tipping points between the “ancient” and the “modern” (yes, I am reviving the Battle of the Books) we find something remarkable in their pages. Assuming, of course, some minimal education, we read there a worldview that is perceptibly our own; an intellectual environment where we are essentially at home, in a way that we are not among the older Greeks and Romans, or even among the earlier Fathers so often reasoning with a world from which they are estranged, to theological views not always confident.

At Hippo Regius, where Bishop Augustine presides in his later life over church and cloisters recognizable in their fragmentary remains, we are “back in Europe.” And this although the city, which is in Africa not Europe, will fall to the Vandals in the very year of Augustine’s death, and later to the Arabs. (He has anticipated that; it’s all there in the City of God.)

Or put this another way, in the words of a lady I know who was a (pointedly “secular”) archaeologist in Egypt, digging through a first-century cemetery in Sinai. She uncovered the grave of a young lady, buried with her child. She had uncovered several, but the skeleton in this one had a necklace on which had been hanging a Crucifix. This had a startling effect on the digger. “One of us!” she thought, quite involuntarily, as she began her own personal journey of return to the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” Church of her ancestors.

The term and concept of the “Middle Ages,” or media saecula, was an invention of the later Italian humanists, since absorbed into historical science at large, and constituting one of its most important false premisses. It was adopted because it would serve to isolate “Christian Europe” in a ghetto, from which we may escape to more comfortable suburbs with better plumbing and electric lights. Or among Protestants, to smartly skip over that part of their own heritage unmistakably Catholic. The idea of historical “progress” — Ancient, Mediaeval, Modern, Post — depends upon it, and for the last five centuries we have been betraying that heritage, thereby denying what we are.

For our next Renaissance I propose that we simply skip over the “Modern” claims, and resume our civilizational identity as the Moderns who succeeded the worthy and respected Ancients.

See also: here.

Of money & honey

The economists (such bores!) tell us that money can be many things. It can be, for instance, a store of value. It can be a medium of exchange. A unit of account. A source of information.

We find a somewhat different, more curt account of money in the Bible, but pass that by.

Just as particle physicists and evolutionary biologists did not consort to write the Book of Genesis, so economists of the Austrian and Chicago Schools did not compose any letters to the Corinthians. Truth to tell, a great number of things are “not covered” in our scriptures, but left to the individual or collective Jews or Christians to figure out for themselves, on their own time, working from Nature through unabridgeable human experience, or perhaps starting from a few divine hints. The need to mend clothes, for instance, or replace them when they are beyond mending: not a word!

In the parables, as elsewhere, much has been taken for granted: property and trade and politics and a whole kaleidoscope of human, instinctual, self-interested responses — the “survival skills” let us call them. As I was reminded in Mass several days ago, we are not told not to not suffer a thief from entering our house or apartment. Rather it is simply assumed that we will not not do that. Indeed, someone could write a book on “things taken for granted in the Bible,” by way of showing that various holier-than-thou poses among our more “progressive” contemporary Christians are ridiculous. Perhaps someone already has.

Here I am sidetracked already. I was intending to fixate on the boring topic of economics. I was going to write of money as a source of information. My example would be honey.

We have been told, by the usual unreliable sources, that there is a crisis in the apiaries. Honeybees have been (along with frogs and monarch butterflies, I gather) mysteriously dying off. The long-experienced fact, of honeybee die-offs, is usually omitted from this account. But seasoned apiarists are not fooled; only the gullible. These latter are invited to imagine a world without bees, without honey — unless we do something immediately through the United Nations that will cost a hundred billion dollars and provide employment for ten thousand progressive administrators and lobbyists.

Now, I do almost all my grocery shopping in the Parkdale district of Greater Parkdale (Vallis Hortensis as I like to call it). I prefer to patronize the small independent family businesses, but have ventured into a supermarket from time to time. When in one of those, such as the “No Frills” emporium at the foot of my street, I succumb to bargains — forgetting that the children of the harshly-taxed family merchants might, in the absence of my trade, be perishing from hunger. And that therefore I can only justify the purchase of Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice (specifically, “not from concentrate”), to which I happen to be addicted, and which I find stocked nowhere else. Though if I had any decency I would instead buy the constituent grapefruits from the Chinese lady down Queen Street, and squeeze the bloody things myself.

Honey, my dears, has been knocked down for quite a while now. So far, that in a moment of disloyalty (for it is also available at a slightly less knocked-down price from the Bengali brothers), I bought a kilo of this substance in there. Seven Canadian bucks, who can beat that? (Used to cost ten or more.) But whether there at No Thrills, or where I usually buy my Buckwheat Honey (at the Polish shop), or Creamed Honey (from the Rajasthanis), or some exotic Floral Honey (from the co-op hippies), I have noticed the prices trending stable or falling.

Take this for the information function of money. What can I learn from it?

That the supply of honey is secure. That the scare stories I read in the media are all what that Trump gentleman calls, “Fake news.”

Our Lady of Fatima

One hundred years after the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima, Portugal, do we have a clearer understanding of what happened? I don’t think so. We had tens of thousands of witnesses for the Miracle of the Sun, on 13th October 1917. We have an embarras de richesses of testimonies, for that and related occurrences, as we have for many other miracles declared “worthy of belief” by the authorities of the Holy See, now and in the past. The claims of the little shepherd children were exhaustively investigated, and what they said Mary told them was carefully recorded.

The apparitions at Zeitoun, in greater Cairo, over a period beginning in April 1968, I looked into once. Again, the number of affirming witnesses was in the tens, or hundreds of thousands. Most of them were Muslims, and they included even the Egyptian president at the time, the socialist Gamal Abdul Nasser. Many eerie photographs of the events were taken, and survive. Unquestionably something happened utterly foreign to the conditions of everyday life. But this “abnormality” included the message itself, delivered mostly in gestures from the roof of a Coptic church. It was not rationally simple and straightforward. There was an instruction to the Christian faithful, and arguably also a call for conversion to the Muslims, who venerate the Virgin Mother of the Prophet Jesus, yet deny the crucifixion and resurrection. (She pointed repeatedly to the Cross.) But this was in its nature mystical. Every tool of rational inquiry would be defeated by it. Every speculation is defeated about why she should appear then, and in that place. All the explanations I have read are incurably trite, facile.

But the mysterious bears contemplation. The thinking about this is useful. It can lead to a deeper appreciation of what, to the world, must seem arbitrary, even whimsical.

It strikes me, however, that trying to interpret the testimonies of Fatima, or the testimonies of Zeitoun, in terms of worldly historical events, is impossible. In general terms, Yes, to what we commemorate after one hundred years. The world was at war, and the twentieth century was unfolding in a hideous way. Our Lady warned of what is to come, and demanded a return to Catholic obedience — to the Faith, presumably as to the faith of little children.

She warned that human souls were falling, like snowflakes into Hell.

One of the principles behind the Catholic apprehension of the miraculous is that, it must be consistent with what we already know. It was. Mary did not come, and does not come, to revise any of the ancient teachings from out of our Deposit of Faith. She comes to accentuate and recapture. She comes bearing reminders, including the crucial reminder that her Son will verily come again.

We are right to commemorate these events; to absorb them into the liturgy over time. We are right to “take the message,” as it were. But that message is from another world, beyond place and time, and the contemplation must take us beyond the mere puzzlements of this one.

An embarrassment

One hesitates to recommend a book, such as Jean Daniélou’s Scandaleuse Vérité (“Scandal of Truth” is a mild translation), because it will be misunderstood. By the half-attentive, English-thinking reader, it may be taken as the pretentious blather of a French intellectual — which, since it came out in 1961, is now sufficiently dated to be ignored. Yet from its start, invoking Justin Martyr, it points to the heart of our Western crisis, and locates it beyond the pressure of “events.”

The truth has always been embarrassing. It was embarrassing, too, in the ancient world, and the worldly-wise have always cringed at the poor taste of those who present it. Seldom will they actually oppose claims made on behalf of the verities, for even by opposing the truth they would be dragged into an unpleasant debate, finally with their own souls. Their only defence can be the glibness with which the word is placed in dismissive quotes. The truth is reduced to “words, words, words” in a time when human testimony has been degraded. Our world, as surely all will agree, is so full of lies that the cynical may easily sneer upon the very notion of trust. Yet the existence of lies does not preclude the existence of truth.

As we see in society at large, and now hear even from Rome, sincerity becomes the substitute for faith. What is true can only be “true for me,” and the genuineness of a feeling substitutes for the content of the faith itself.

This is what a pope is now preaching: not against the content of the Catholic faith, which all his predecessors accepted as true; rather against their view that this content has importance — that, in effect, the truth is true, and commands our adherence because it is true, whether we find comfort and pleasure in it, or not. Instead, any view sincerely held is taken as acceptable, and though we might technically allow it is in error, we must “accompany” the holder to death’s door.

This is hardly a view originating in the Holy Father. I mentioned the publication date of Daniélou’s remarkable book — before Vatican II had congregated. Before it had ever been announced, the “dictatorship of relativism” had been proclaimed, in the world around us. In retrospect, it seems to me, no Church Council called in that environment could avoid a direct, and very embarrassing, clash with the modern world; for otherwise it would be infected. And that direct clash was avoided.

I have touched only on the opening remarks in Scandaleuse Vérité. The book goes on to deal with things more fatal than indifference to truth, or than the scandal with which it is received. It deals with the elevation of the ungodly; with counterfeit hierophanies and lofty “ideals” which occupy the very place in the soul that yearns for truth and meaning. We face, ever more plainly, a grand attempt to raise atheist man to the station of his own God and Maker. And this, such that the tragic consequences of our anti-religions — the casualties of wars and abortions — are not so bad as the soul-destroying scheme itself.

Paradoxically, I reflect, the principal accomplishment of this grand scheme or project is that man is in fear — not of God, but of himself. We have tasted our own destructive powers, and rightly we are frightened by them.

 

Dr Frank Hutson Gregory

Frank Gregory lived a shameful life, by his own accounts. He loved to shock people, but had the misfortune to live in an age and environment where his preferred methods no longer worked. Illicit sex, for instance, has had little shock value through the last few decades; illicit sex in Bangkok possibly none at all.

When I first met him, some forty years ago, he was just passing through that city. I was editing a business magazine there; he needed paid employment. Gangly, tall, unkempt, hound-faced, preposterously rude and facetious, I took to him immediately. He had come from England, where he’d studied maths and logic; I think of him as the last of the desiccated analytical philosophers; a kind of hippie Bertrand Russell. His ability to assimilate and manipulate “factoids,” then wittily narrate them, made him an invaluable rewrite man. Too, his casual assumption that everyone in business and public life would prove corrupt, put him constantly ahead of the story.

Like many who passed through Bangkok, without ever moving on, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. Asked flatly, he said he was researching a coffee-table book on the brothels of Asia. He recounted adventures in “the cages of Calcutta,” in Gang Dolly, in the “walled city of Kowloon” — then mentioned that he had made it all up. For the bargirls on Patpong, he was a real trial: more interviewer than customer. He gave his religion as, “Antinomian,” on all government forms.

Secretly, he had a fierce sense of justice, and would do things unprompted that were disquietingly honourable. Then deny what he had done, when caught.

His politics were conventional mild Left; his satirical works limited to the sarcastic. But he had a splendid eye for the ludicrous, and an ear for the devastating verbal slip. He had, in my opinion, the potential to make mischief that would be positively divine, but wasted it on atheism.

He grew older, out of my view. By the time of his death, last month, he had written various serious papers on logic, the application of logic, its cultural transmission; on number, “information theory,” and other dimensions of reasoning. But from his letters I gathered that he remained the same old Frank; albeit settled into a traditional northern Thai house in the paddy near Chiang Mai; with Napat, the woman who cared for him through horrible sickness as she had in his health, and was (I have on good information) there, selflessly there, by his bedside to the end.

It does not surprise me that he could command such loyalty, in a lover as in old friends; for he was himself abidingly loyal. We could see a strange innocence through his protestations of guilt. I remember how he tormented me, for having become a Christian; but too, the affection he concealed beneath that. He was unusual in wanting the best for people.

I have been thinking much of death lately, as several near to me have recently pushed off. I can hardly explain why this death hit me hardest; this mourning a life all future, that has become all past. If Frank could die, anyone could die: perhaps I mourn discreditably for myself. Or maybe it’s just that I loved the guy.

George, Wolfgang, and Julian went up from Bangkok to the cremation at Chiang Mai. Old buddies, still in Thailand after all these years. Had I stayed, I would have been in the fourth seat.

Good is prolific

Somewhere in The Idea of a University — Discourse VII, I discover — Newman unfolds a battle flag I have long saluted. He is struggling against utilitarian principles in education; he finds that far from being recent innovations they go back directly to Locke; and he is aware that as champion of classical learning he is, by the middle of the nineteenth century, on the defensive. “The good” and “the useful” are sufficiently distinct that the one may be set in opposition to the other, tempting the hotheads to take sides. Calmly, he rather finds good on both sides.

“But I lay it down as a principle, which will save us a great deal of anxiety, that, though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful.”

Since I have gone to the trouble of looking this up, let me continue the quote:

“Good is not only useful, but reproductive of good; this is one of its attributes; nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likeness of itself all around it. Good is prolific. …”

The radical descendants of the utilitarians cannot be happy with this; nor would have been their puritan forebears. They have always been on the side of suppression. In this case, how dare we teach a lad (or a lass when it comes to that) what will be of no direct use to him in his later life. Latin, particularly, has been in their gunsights, but all of philosophy is a waste to them, and as for poetry, and the higher arts, they are not buying. They want “science,” in the most limited sense, and they want know-how, technique. And in the main, the twentieth century attests to their victory in the public squabble.

I am not Cardinal Newman, and lack his serenity and patience, to say nothing of his learning. My habit in battle is to escalate sharply. My instinct, on first contact with a utilitarian, is to reach for my Browning. Newman’s was instead to examine his position for any good it might contain, and see if that good could be disentangled.

He reaches for the parallel of bodily health, ever taken as a desideratum. He allows that balance is required: that overdevelopment of some physical faculty may conceivably undermine the whole. But having granted this, it is plain that the healthy man has advantages over the unhealthy in whatever he chooses to do — starting with getting out of bed in the morning, which elsewhere Newman says is the beginning of virtue.

So it goes with the mental faculties. Some balance may be required, lest the man grow into the intellectual equivalent of a weightlifting prodigy — a self-made idiot savant — yet the man who can read poetry with enjoyment, and whose views are elevated by the ladder of the classics, has the advantage over the dolt whose only relaxation is football.

The America founded on puritan ideals, utilitarian to a fault, and now gone crazy, has long been anti-intellectual. (I learnt this the hard way through schoolyard beatings.) We believe in muscle, and in lifting weights. To us the brain is a kind of muscle. All of its strengths are to be applied.

It should be the occasion of no surprise that our campuses are now ruled by ignorant Leftist thugs, feminazis and what have you. All focused, censorious utilitarianism ends that way.

Thanksgiving

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.