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February 2021

Now Is the Acceptable Time

I've forgotten how I wound up reading something at earlier today. It's not a site I normally visit. What I've seen and heard of it indicates that it focuses very much on the crisis of the Church, and I decided a few years ago that I just wasn't going to pay much attention to that anymore. I can say that it was a rational decision based on the fact that there's nothing I can do about this or that bad thing coming out of the Vatican or the USCCB. But the strongest reason was more elemental: I was sick of it.

Nevertheless, I'm glad I read this piece by Hilary White, which discusses our response not so much to the crisis of the Church as to that of the world. You don't have to go quite as far as she does in believing that the pandemic is being manipulated. I mean, you don't have to agree that the manipulation is as extensive and focused as it is, but I don't think there's any question that the situation has been successfully manipulated for purposes which were not in the general interest. I am not suggesting that the disease is not real and really dangerous, only that it has been exploited. 

No, you don't have to go very far at all in doom-and-gloom and paranoia to see that there is something really bad going on in the world, and that Christians in particular may in the not-too-distant future have a really bad time of it. At the very least, we're going to be marginalized and despised by the people who hold most of the power and influence, and by those who support them.

I've never been one to engage in end-of-the-world speculation. Every period in history has been more or less disastrous. And I don't like the kind of paranoia that sees the active hand of Satan in every bad idea or trend. I don't look for signs of the end, or of the Antichrist. Nevertheless, whether or not the prophesied individual by that name is among us or soon to be among us, there is such a thing, a vaguer thing, as the spirit of Antichrist. And it's here, right now. It is the spirit that teaches that there is no God, that any "salvation" available to us is of this world only, and that we can achieve it by our own efforts. I think it's fair to say that that spirit is more widespread and powerful than it ever has been, for the very straightforward reason that over the past century and a half or so we have in fact done astonishing things to improve the material lot of mankind, things never before seen in human history. To many, the attainment of some sort of earthly paradise seems possible, maybe even imminent: if only those who refuse to join in the effort would cooperate.

What to do? Well, these words from Hilary White's piece seem to be where we should start. They're especially appropriate for Lent.

The last year – with much of our time spent restricted in space and greatly reduced in powers – has taught us, perhaps, to look to the interior for the things we really can affect to the good [emphasis in the original]. We still have the power to create a change in ourselves. I want the world to be different, but I’m lazy and selfish and I want other people to make it better so I can have an easier time. I don’t want to change myself to want material security less. I don’t want to increase my courage or my trust in God. That’s all difficult work that requires efforts that won’t produce immediate material results – or any material results at all. But these are the concerns of children, and of people who are determined to stay children forever.

What if, letting go of that hope that someone else will fix things to make it so I don’t have to change myself, I did the much, much harder thing and made the effort to change myself?


Psalm 138:7

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, yet shalt thou refresh me; thou shalt stretch forth thy hand upon the furiousness of mine enemies, and thy right hand shall save me.

Psalm 23:1-2

The Lord is my shepherd
therefore can I lack nothing.
He shall feed me in a green pasture
and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.

(Coverdale translation)


I've seen it claimed that this is the greatest English novel. I don't go in much for the idea of a single greatest achievement in any art, or for that matter in any human endeavor, but I will go as far as agreeing that there are good reasons for making this particular claim. By "English" I would mean not "in the English language" but "by an English writer." Middlemarch is such a different sort of thing from, say, The Sound and the Fury, that the comparison would be inapt. 

I've put off reading Middlemarch for more than forty years, in the face of strong recommendations from people whose opinions I respect, some known personally and some by reputation, because I acquired a prejudice against George Eliot's work when I was a teenager. I can't figure out now exactly where that came from, but I have a vague notion that it had to do with Silas Marner--and yet I don't recall reading it. I have an even vaguer, and now embarrassing, notion that I may not have read the novel at all, but rather a comic book version of it. There was a comic book series called Classics Illustrated when I was growing up, and I read several of them. From what I can remember they were pretty horrible: I'm pretty sure I acquired a somewhat similar prejudice against Jane Eyre from that source, though it didn't stop me from eventually reading and appreciating that novel. 

Perhaps it was just as well that I've only just now read Middlemarch for the first time. I'm not at all sure I would have appreciated it when I was, say, in my twenties, which is when I remember hearing my first recommendation of it (from my late friend Robert W, whom I've mentioned here before). Why now? I've understood for many years that it must actually be a good book and have had in mind to read it. What finally pushed me into picking it up was the fact that the January issue of The New Criterion has an article about it, and I didn't want to read the article without having read the book first.

A few years ago when I reread Moby Dick for the first time since high school I said "It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that I enjoyed every word of this book." The same is true of Middlemarch, or almost; perhaps a bit more of an exaggeration, but only a bit. And that was a surprise. I expected it to be undeniably good, but perhaps a bit stiff or a bit dull at times; I would not have been surprised if it had been somewhat moralistic. The greatest surprise was that Middlemarch is a very funny book. Not comic, in the sense that, say, some of Dickens's characters and incidents are comic, but witty, in a way that strikes me as very feminine: arch, dry, similar to Jane Austen's wit, but to me rather more funny. I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud within the first few chapters, and frequently thereafter. 

For the most part this humor is in the observations of the narrator, not in the characters or the situations. And in general I think it's the authorial voice that sets Middlemarch apart. The characters are alive, the plot is engaging. But the most remarkable aspect of the book, the aspect that had me often pausing in sheer admiration, is the voice of Eliot herself. There seems little warrant for supposing that the narrator is in any major way different from the author.

There are, I grant freely, many gaps in my reading. But I don't know of another novelist who seems to have (or be able to express, which as far as a novel is concerned is the same thing) the psychological acumen of Eliot. Henry James comes to mind, but I haven't read that much of him, and most of it was many years ago, so I can't really judge. Eliot seems acutely attuned to the subtle workings of the psyche, and is able to describe them with great precision. And these are not just phenomena of sensibility, but of motivation, of self-will and self-delusion--the springs of action. It seems almost god-like, and made me think of that remark from St. Paul about the word of God being sharper than a sword, judging the intentions of the heart.

And that touches upon the only thing I would wish to be different about the book. Eliot was a free-thinker of the Victorian type, newly converted from orthodox Christianity by scientific and scholarly challenges of the time. She translated the German skeptic Feuerbach. Despite the presence of several clergymen as major characters--and perhaps revealing of the state of the Church of England at the time--the novel has essentially no vertical dimension. It's all horizontal, all of this world. In a pattern that would become dreary and very, very stale, the only person who seems deeply concerned with Christian faith is an odious hypocrite.

But that's like complaining that Shakespeare is not Dante. Over and over again while reading Middlemarch I thought "this woman is a genius." She doesn't have to be right about everything to deserve that praise. (And clearly she would have been considered a remarkable intellect even if she had never written a word of fiction.) And it's worth mentioning that the book begins and ends with the comparison of its central character, the great- and noble-hearted Dorothea, to St. Teresa (of Avila), and regretting that Dorothea did not have before her the potential field of action that Teresa did. (Elizabeth Seton and Katharine Drexel would have argued with her there.)

I wonder what Eliot really intended in Middlemarch. It's very topical, very specifically placed in a certain time (around 1820, about the time Eliot was born), very concerned with the politics and other developments of that specific period. Did she realize that she was writing for the centuries? 

I'm not bothering with a plot-and-character summary. You can find those anywhere, and this is not a review which might be someone's only information about the novel. I'm only telling you why I liked it so much, and will surely read it again. I liked it in that rare way that makes one wish to have known the author. I can't imagine that I would have been able to hold a conversation with her, but I think I would have loved to listen to her.

If you haven't read it, or if it's been a long time since you did, and you don't already own it, I suggest you get an edition with notes. I read the only one readily available to me, the local library's Modern Library edition, which has no notes, and I felt the need of them on every other page, it seemed. So I found myself constantly picking up my phone or Kindle to look up a word or a reference to some place or thing (and of course sometimes just passing things by and hoping they weren't essential). In the course of deciding which edition to buy for myself, I ran across a great web site, Middlemarch for Book Clubs, which is a sort of orientation, and which includes a very helpful guide to Choosing an Edition. (I plan to get the Oxford World Classics one.)


The author of that web site begins by noting someone's assertion that Middlemarch may destroy your book club. I can see how it might. It is a very long book (800 pages in the edition I read), and it's not easy reading: the narrator, and many of the characters as well, lean toward very long and complex sentences with subtle meanings which often required two or three readings for me. And there are a lot of characters to be kept in mind. I didn't find any of this excessively burdensome; in fact it's the quality of the prose in general that's the essence of the book's great delights. But some may find it so.

One last note: I'm struck by the concern of most of the characters with their personal honor. It is considered an intolerable blight on their reputations even to be put in a light where it would be plausible to suspect them of anything dishonorable. Now the predominant type of our culture is the one described by Yeats:

Who were it proved he lies
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors' eyes

As soon as I'd finished the book I was tempted to watch the 1994 BBC dramatization. I say "tempted" because I was wary of having my perception of the book damaged by badly-chosen actors and interpretations. I did fairly soon give in to the temptation, and was not sorry. No dramatization could possibly be a substitute for the book, for reasons that should be obvious from what I've said. But this one is quite respectable and I wouldn't warn anyone away from it. 

Psalm 25:1

Unto thee, O Lord, will I lift up my soul; my God, I have put my trust in thee
O let me not be confounded, neither let mine enemies triumph over me.

(Coverdale translation)

Psalm 1:1

Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, and hath not sat in the seat of the scornful.

(Coverdale translation)

Psalm 51:1,8

The Coverdale translation of the Psalms has been used liturgically in the Anglican tradition since the mid-1500s. I use it myself in my daily morning prayers with the St. Gregory's Prayer Book, which I admit are not always in fact daily, but at least quite frequent. Reputedly it's not as accurate as some, maybe not even as accurate as the King James, but it's very rich and vivid. 

For Lent, I'm going to try every day to post an excerpt from the Coverdale Psalm for the day's Mass. I say "try" because chances are good that I will miss a day here and there. But here we go, with verses 1 and 8 of Psalm 51.

Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness
according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences.

Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness
that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.

The Grail translation goes:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your merciful love;
according to your great compassion,
blot out my transgressions.

Let me hear rejoicing and gladness,
that the bones you have crushed may exult.

That's very fine, and I'm not criticizing it. But the Coverdale has a sort of more sturdy and substantial quality that I like: "the multitude of thy mercies" vs. "great compassion," for instance.

The Last Christian Generation?

Rod Dreher had a post a month or two back in which he discussed the possibility that we are in a situation comparable to that of the Romans we call "pagans," those who continued to Rome's ancient objects and forms of worhip, when Christianity became the Empire's dominant religion. You can read the post here. It draws on a book which goes into that Roman transition in great detail.

That historical parallel is interesting and surely must have some validity. But what's been preoccupying me lately is just these words: "the last Christian generation." I'm so literal-minded that talk of generations always bothers me: we can speak of the generations of a family, because by definition children are preceded by parents and grandparents in strict order, however long the intervals between them may be. But the idea is only loosely applicable to societies. We don't see a million births in a single year, followed by twenty barren years, followed by a year in which all the twenty-year-olds bear children, and so on. There can't really be a last generation of anything in a society taken as a whole. There is only a waning and waxing of numbers, as more and more children grow up and leave one way and take up another. I know, there is some utility in speaking of, say, the young people of a certain age at a certain time as a generation. But I always want to carp at it a little.

It's precisely the specific and definite use of the word that I keep thinking about--the drying up of Christianity in individual families. I've seen it happen; we all have, I assume. There are a husband and wife who are practicing Christians. Maybe they're very devout. maybe they're fairly casual, but they do consciously think of themselves as Christians, go to church at least frequently, and make at least some effort to pass the faith along to their children.

Then the children leave, either in anger and bitterness or by casual drift, dropping any practice and any explicitly Christian thinking. Maybe they become "spiritual but not religious," maybe they don't even give any thought to that sort of thing. Still, some degree of Christian consciousness remains, some awareness of Christian things, some notion of what Christianity teaches. To that extent they're still part of a Christian culture.

But when they have children of their own, this consciousness, this awareness, does not pass to them. They know no more of Christianity than an American child in 1960 was likely to know of Hinduism. Moreover, they may have been educated, formally and informally, to associate the term "Christian" with sanctimony, eccentricity or outright madness, bigotry, perversion, and so forth. And to regard the history of Christian civilization as chiefly occupied in the burning of witches and heretics, and the enslavement and slaughter of other, superior peoples.

Within their own families, the grandparents in that progression are literally the last Christian generation. And this is not a thing that might happen: it is happening now. Probably we all know of instances. Christian thinkers have seen this coming for a century and a half or so, but it's one thing to hear about a drought, another to see the crops withering before your eyes.

We may already have arrived at a point where our culture is dominated by people who are at the stage of that third generation, or further. (It's arguable that the word "may" there is not accurate, but I'll let that go for now.) At that point the broader conventional use of "generation" becomes applicable. It's a discouraging thought, but appropriate for consideration as we move into Lent. There doesn't seem to be a great deal of a practical nature that we can do about this, which should give our prayers more urgency.

1024px-Cracked_earth_after_prolonged_drought._2020(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Ronald Knox: A Retreat For Lay People

Note: I learned (see the comments) after posting this that the book, unfortunately, is currently out of print.

I have only read about half of this book, and that was over a period of months. I take it with me to my weekly hour of Eucharistic vigil, much of which generally passes with my thoughts wandering all over the place, some of which passes in reading. More often than not I don't even open this book, which is why I'm only on chapter XII of XXIV. 

But I'm writing about it now because it's only a week until the start of Lent, and I think this would be good Lenten reading. It's a series of talks given at retreats by Fr. Knox in the '40s and '50s (I think). It's down-to-earth and fairly casual, even light, in tone--at one point he mentions the sort of annoying acquaintance that we would like to "squash"--but rich with insight.

It was the last chapter I read that made me think to recommend it now. The chapter is called "Six Steps to the Crucifix," a title which made me expect a Stations-of-the-Cross sort of discussion, but it isn't that. The steps referred to are approaches to understanding and contemplating the Passion, beginning with a view of it as a fairly straightforward and all too common instance of human crime and folly.

On the lowest level of all, then, what does the spectator of Calvary say to himself? He shrugs his shoulders and comments, "Well, I suppose that is the way of the world! Here was a man who was too good for his generation; and his generation took the short way, and made an end of him." I doubt if there is a single human being who will not go as far as that, who will not pay that much tribute to the character of Jesus Christ. However low you rank him in the scale of human achievement, you will put him in the same class with Socrates. Socrates went about the world trying to make people think, trying to make people see that there must be a right and a wrong way of living.... And the good people of Athens called him an atheist and made him drink poison. Five centuries later, Jesus of Nazareth came, and he taught, well, perhaps not exactly the same but the same kind of thing....being merciful to your neighbor, judging him charitably, trusting Providence, being sorry when you had done wrong. And the Jews crucified him. It is the way of the world. 

Of the world; we mustn't go away saying "Of course, Jews are like that." No, Jews and Gentiles are like that, the world is like that, and you and I are the world.

And from there he goes on to look at the Crucifixion from increasingly un-natural and more mysterious points of view, ending with the acknowledgement that it is something beyond human comprehension.

I plan to read the remaining XIII chapters during Lent. 


Laika: "Badtimes"

If you were on the net in the mid-to-late 1990s, you probably encountered an email with the subject "Goodtimes" or "Good Times" which contained dire warnings about an email with the subject "Goodtimes" or "Good Times" which, if opened, would release a virus that would do all sorts of harm to your computer. It was a hoax which was so widespread and got so much attention that it has its own Wikipedia entry.

It was followed by a parody called "Bad Times," which I did not know about until today. The parody came to my attention because I was listening to the album Good Looking Blues by a group called Laika in which the lyrics are the text of "Bad Times." I think it's pretty funny. Some of the references are quite dated now but still amusing.

Laika, as you may know, was the name of the dog sent into orbit by the Soviets in 1959. She did not survive the experience (she also has a Wikipedia entry), which suggests that the band named after her has a somewhat dark view of things. The album bears that out. I like it (not particularly for that reason). I'd describe it as a sort of high-speed trip-hop, which is almost a contradiction in terms. It has a lot of intricate and very fast percussion, and mostly spoken rather than sung lyrics. This song is slower than most. The intensity makes listening to the whole album at once a little much, but two or three tracks at a time are fascinating. 

How Biden Plans to Unify the Country

Many years ago I was sitting in a restaurant with a four-year-old boy. Like many or most four-year-old boys, he was intensely interested in vehicles of all sorts, especially the larger and louder ones. So when I heard a siren and saw something with flashing red lights go by, I said, "Look, there goes an ambulance."

He was already looking, naturally, and said "That's not an ambulance, it's a rescue truck."

In retrospect, I realized that it was stupid of me to argue with a four-year-old, but I was young and naive, and I persisted.

"No, it's an ambulance."

"No, it's a rescue truck."

"Are you sure? It looked like an ambulance to me."

He gave me a dark look and said "You have to compromise."

Surprised that he was using such a big and abstract word, I said "What does that mean?"

He gave me an even darker look.

"That means it was a rescue truck."