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This Is the Last Time I Write About the Current State of the Catholic Church

Well, at least during this papacy. 

The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it. And therefore seeing the matter is thus begun, and so faintly resisted on our parts, I fear that we be not the men that shall see the end of the misery.

Wherefore, seeing I am an old man and look not long to live, I mind not by the help of God to trouble my conscience in pleasing the king this way whatsoever become of me, but rather here to spend out the remnant of my old days in praying to God for him.

    --St. John Fisher's "reply to Bishops Stokesley, Gardiner and Tunstal, sent to the Tower by Thomas Cromwell to persuade Fisher to submit to the King" (full text at the link)

I do not of course identify myself with St. John Fisher's courage in the face of the immediate and fairly certain prospect of decapitation. I'm not in any personal danger from either secular or religious authorities. I'm not even in danger of financial or social penalties. I suppose I might experience either or both of those if I were in a situation where the opinion of progressives had that kind of power over me, but I'm not. Nor do I mean that the Catholic Church, in my country or universally, has been decisively conquered in the way that Fisher witnessed. 

What I identify with is Fisher's understanding that it was the authorities within the Church who had given it over to its enemies, his resignation in the face of the result, and his certainty that the trouble he sees will long outlast him. 

The turmoil in the Catholic Church, the conflict between the Faith more or less as it has been understood for 2000 years and doctrinal revisions intended to make it acceptable to that godless fool, "modern man," is a grave crisis which is not going to be resolved in my lifetime. The evangelization which Vatican II and other changes were meant to enable is now crippled by that internal conflict (among many other things). And this crisis has mainly been the work of church authorities.

I know I've said things like this before, but not, I think, with quite so much emphasis and finality. The occasion, as you might have guessed, is the issuing of the decree Fiducia supplicans. I don't think I need to say much about it. If you want to dig into what it actually says and what it actually means, there are plenty of opinions out there. (I think Larry Chapp has it right.)

My own view is simple: the decree is the answer to the question "How can we do this while denying that we are doing it?" I know the document is carefully constructed to be technically orthodox, and I recognize the good will of those who argue that it changes nothing. But I think they're mistaken. The homosexual rights activist Fr. James Martin, S.J., thinks so, too, quoted by Chapp: “Be wary of the ‘Nothing has changed’ response to today’s news. It’s a significant change.".

Fisher of course did not live to see the church which replaced his own be surrendered in a similar way, not to a king but to the diffused sovereignty of the spirit of the times, which I think is clearly the spirit of the Antichrist. Many of us who watched, helplessly, the internal apostasy of most of Anglicanism recognize Fiducia supplicans as a maneuver in the struggle which wrecked that communion. Whether that maneuver will be followed successfully by others I won't try to guess. I think the most likely long-term result is a gradual continuation of the hollowing-out process which leaves "official teaching" more or less intact but a dead letter. 

I don't care to speculate about the motives of the pope. I'll just go back to something I've said before, but with more emphasis: Pope Francis is a bad pope in the functional sense that he is bad at his job, like a builder whose buildings fall down. He has  exacerbated--deliberately, it appears--the divisions in the Church and insured that the crisis of which I spoke above will be prolonged for quite some time. It is entirely possible that it will become much, much worse, in part because of his approach to it.

There's something else on this subject that I may or may not have said here before, though I have certainly said it in other places. I'll repeat it as I leave the topic: I had never, as far as I recall, so much as heard the name of Cardinal Bergoglio before his election to the papacy, and therefore had no prejudice against him. But when he stepped out onto that balcony to greet the crowds after his election, I immediately had what I can only describe crudely as a bad feeling. It had no particular content and I wouldn't call it a premonition, just...a bad feeling. I've thought about it often since then, and have spoken to others who had the same experience. It's a small thing which may be significant. Or not.


Values

As I think I mentioned not too long ago, I've been going through old notebooks containing odds and ends of writing, with the aim of getting rid of the notebooks, as part of a bigger de-cluttering process. Some of the material is drafts of blog posts or essays which were eventually published. Much is only fragments, briefly noted ideas, not worth preserving. A few are more substantial. This is one. I have no very definite idea of when I wrote it, but I think it was at least fifteen  years ago. 

I seem to develop allergies to certain words or phrases from time to time. I'll notice myself having an irritable reaction to a word such as, for instance, "empowerment." Once I realize that this is happening I begin to analyze the term and usually find that it is being used in some way that strikes me as dishonest, evasive, or simply wrong.

The first instance of this which I can recall at the moment occurred in the late '60s or early '70s, and the word was "lifestyle." It seemed a harmless, perhaps even useful, term, but it always rubbed me wrong. Eventually I figured out that it was the savor of self-indulgence about it that put me off, and soon enough it became clear that it had two meanings: one, a way of living which ran defiantly counter to traditional morality, as in "alternative lifestyle," and, two, money, as in "we'd like to maintain our lifestyle." (Test-drive it and see: try talking about "the Trappist lifestyle"; it should make you feel uneasy.)

"Values" is another such irritating word. What's wrong with it? Isn't the lack of "values" one of our serious problems? Don't we need values? If so, why do I feel gloom descending upon me when I read in the bulletin of a Catholic college that it is "committed to Catholic values"?

The problem is that values alone are not worth much. The term has come to mean a mere preference.

That was all I wrote at the time. But I know that what I meant to go on and say was that "values" are not principles. "Values" are soft, malleable, somewhat subjective, possibly even a matter of personal inclination. Principles are hard and fixed. You can stand on them.

Catholic values are fine; they ought to include many qualities which almost everyone would applaud--in a Catholic college, they ought to include, for instance, academic excellence. Concern for justice and peace, if taken in a non-ideological sense, is a worthy value. But notice that those are abstract and a little vague. Why are these things valued? What are the principles which justify their being valued? If they aren't founded on Catholic principles--by which I mean the faith itself, starting with the creeds--then what? And with what justification? 

The gloom I described arises from a suspicion that use of the word "values" is often an attempt, possibly unconscious, to avoid or minimize that foundation, in the interest of appearing more accommodating to the secular modern suspicion of religion as such.

*

One casualty of the winnowing and discarding process I mentioned was some dozens of pages of a novel for which I once had great hopes. I could still see glimpses of promise in it, but not many. It was a little painful to discard those scribbled pages and close the door on that project forever.

I'm always a little annoyed by the cheerful counsel that "it's never too late!" to do this or that thing that you always wanted to do. Sometimes it really is. Sure, I could start working on that novel again, but it would be at the expense of spending time on other things I want to do or should do. At my age I can be pretty certain that I won't have time and/or good health for them all. 


Miles Coverdale, Bob Dylan, and The Foot of Pride

Dylan has a song, released on the first of the outtakes collections falsely called "bootlegs" (it's not a bootleg if it's released by the record company), called "Foot of Pride." It was recorded for the Infidels album but not used, thereby making the album weaker than it might have been. To me Infidels is one of Dylan's many very-mixed-bag albums, half great and half so-so. At least that's the way I recall it--I haven't listened to it for many years. "Foot of Pride" might even have been my choice for best track on the album, had it been there. Or possibly second-best, if another outtake, maybe the most celebrated and lamented of them all, had been kept: "Blind Willie McTell." Here's "Foot of Pride":

Lyrics here.

It's a weird phrase, and I wondered exactly what it meant. The general idea seems clear enough: when the consequences of your actions come to pass. Reading the Coverdale translation of Psalm 36 a while back I was startled by this: "O let not the foot of pride come against me."

Had Dylan read the Coverdale Psalms (the translation done by Miles Coverdale in the early days of English Protestantism)? Surely not, as they are, or for several centuries were, the official liturgical translation for the Church of England and other Anglican bodies, and not much known outside those. But also not impossible, I thought. The mystery was cleared a little when I compared Coverdale to King James: the latter also has "foot of pride," and it would be considerably less surprising that Dylan had encountered it there. Either way, I have to consider it far more likely than not that he got it from the Bible; it's just too odd. And not from a more modern translation, most of which seem to go for the less obscure "foot of the proud."

You'll notice that the fairly clear meaning of either translation seems to be the opposite of what I took Dylan to be saying. He seems to be suggesting that the foot in question is a sort of nemesis of the proud, not a menace to the righteous. Oh well--I've always considered the business of trying to read Dylan as if he were Ezra Pound to be a waste of time.

The Coverdale Psalms, as I've mentioned before, have definitely become my favorite version, overall. I add that last qualifier because the King James version of the 23rd can never be replaced in my mind, if only because "still waters" touches me more than "waters of comfort."

Back to Dylan: "Say one more stupid thing to me before the final nail is driven in" sort of expresses the way I feel when reading the froth of journalism and entertainment on the internet. I wish I could break myself of the habit of reading so much of it.  


Prayers For the Young Priests

This past Easter I wrote about going to the Vigil at a small parish where the pastor is a young priest, and said this:

The young priests I've encountered in recent years are all similarly committed to the traditional mission of the Church, which makes them "conservative" in the confused mind of our time. And they are very brave. The orthodoxy is not surprising, because, as has been pointed out for decades, who would give up everything a priest has to give up for an ill-defined mission of which he is half ashamed? The bravery is almost true by definition now, because in the minds of many all priests are automatically suspected of child molestation and other crimes. And the accusation obviously gives a lot of pleasure to those who already hate the Church for other reasons. I certainly would have trouble walking around in public if I thought people were looking at me with that in mind. God give them strength. 

This has been much on my mind for the past week or so because of a situation in my diocese. I haven't seen it mentioned in the national news, but then I don't see that much national news, so perhaps it's out there. There are quite a few local and state news stories about it, but I think I'll refrain from linking to them, because I don't want to be even slightly responsible for it getting wider attention. It illustrates a different sort of difficulty and threat faced by young priests--any priests, really, but especially young ones.

I also won't mention the name of the priest involved. It isn't the one whose parish I attended at Easter, but they're about the same age. I'll call this one Father M (for Mackay). I don't know him personally but I heard him speak a year or so ago at my parish. Our then-assistant pastor, also a priest of around the same age, had organized a series of talks for men, and Father M was one of the speakers. It was a good talk. He was intelligent, articulate, and obviously passionate about the orthodox faith, about the need for committed spiritual combat against all the temptations and distractions that the contemporary world presents, about the need for courage and self-mastery.

But there was one thing that made me a little uneasy. Before I mention that, I'll speak generally: any young person with an intense commitment to anything runs the risk of either burning out, because the intensity can't be sustained over the long haul, especially in the face of life's typical disappointments, or of going off the rails in some way, passion overriding prudence and balance: out of gas, or crash and burn. Some young priests make me a little uneasy on this count. They are orthodox, often traditionalist, devoted, and intense, and I worry that they won't be able to keep their balance over a lifetime of ministry, and will come to a halt in one of those two ways. 

Where religion is concerned, the form taken by that second possibility--intensity that goes out of control in some way--is likely to be fanaticism, superstition, and other spiritual diseases. Father Ronald Knox devoted an entire book, Enthusiasm, to the syndrome as it has manifested itself since the beginning of the Church. (He means the word "enthusiasm" in a sense that's pretty much fallen out of use now, more or less equivalent to "fanaticism.") It can be difficult to tell the difference between intense healthy devotion and intense unhealthy fanaticism, but there is a difference. It's even more difficult, I suspect, to recognize it from the inside: to know how, in one's own interior life, to maintain the former without falling into the latter. (I wouldn't know; I don't have the kind of zeal and energy that puts me in that danger.) 

One particular danger for the very religiously committed seems to be excessive interest in signs and wonders, particularly those having to do with the workings of evil. As best I can tell from what's public knowledge, something like that seems to have happened to Fr. M, and to have led him into trouble.

As good as his talk at my parish was, some of it made me, as I said, a little uneasy. He was clearly intense, and that sparked my usual concern, that he would not be able to sustain it while keeping his balance. And he talked a lot about demons, prayers of deliverance, purging one's space of things that might carry evil influences, and so forth, and that made me concerned that he might be giving more attention to those things than is really healthy. I don't mean that I definitely concluded that that was the case; when I say "concerned" that's all I mean; I had that little warning-bell feeling. From what I hear, this interest--which, if not excessive, is clearly great--has been a strong tendency of his for some time. 

It seems to be at the root of the current situation--the current disaster, it's fair to say. Fr. M was often asked to speak to classes at the local Catholic high school, and his talks often were heavy on the topics I just mentioned. And he sometimes had counseling or spiritual guidance sessions with individual students. He was apparently pretty quick to blame the direct influence of Satan for their problems, which in my experience is a cause for concern. And he had gotten very interested in certain Marian apparitions, especially the one(s) in Garabandal, Spain, which as far as I can tell from a little reading about them are at best of dubious authenticity. Excessive interest in those is also, for me, a cause for concern. Again, I don't mean that these things are plainly misguided, only that I've seen and heard enough over the years to know that interest in them can become quite unhealthy.

Reportedly his talk of demons and exorcisms was enough to alarm some parents. Were they justified? Or did they, like many contemporary Christians, just want a tame faith? I don't know. 

Apparently he became very close with one female student. And a couple of weeks ago he and the girl, who had graduated in the spring, disappeared and were found to have  fled (the word seems reasonable) to Garabandal, for reasons that remain unclear. The archbishop immediately deprived Fr. M of his priestly faculties (which the local media keep incorrectly calling "defrocked"). The girl's parents are understandably very upset. When she and Fr. M were located, they both denied that they have a sexual relationship. But of course that's being met with "yeah right" by many or most people, and that's at least somewhat understandable--it certainly looks bad.

But I believe them. Based solely on my experience of his talk, I am quite willing to believe that it is not a physically sexual relationship, and that Fr. M did not "groom" the girl, as the irresponsible local sheriff is saying. However, I also think it's quite likely that it was and is sexual in the broad sense--i.e., that he is a handsome young man and she is a no doubt pretty young woman, and they developed romantic feelings for each other. Perhaps they didn't even really or fully recognize that it was happening. That's hardly an uncommon phenomenon. 

Anyway, this is obviously a disaster for all concerned. Is it even in principle possible for Fr. M ever to function as a priest again? Does he even want to? Would any bishop ever let him? What will this have done to the girl's spiritual life and general emotional health? Will she leave the Church? Will her parents? Will he? 

And somewhere out near the edge of the ripples generated by this splash am I, seeing what is probably the loss to the Church, and in a small way to me, of a gifted young priest. You don't have to believe that a demon whispered directly into Fr. M's ear to see that this is a victory for the arch-demon. At least for now. I pray every day for "all bishops, priests, deacons, seminarians, and religious." Especially the young ones.


A Couple of Things Before the Triduum

A few things I meant to say about The Dry Wood:

I'm not sure exactly what the title means. It's an allusion to Luke 23:31: 

For if in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?

That's the Douay-Rheims translation, which is the one Houselander uses, not surprisingly. I admit that I've never been entirely sure what it means. It's part of the warning Jesus gives to the people as he is about to be led away to his crucifixion, a warning that very bad things are coming for everyone. Flammability is one obvious difference between green and dry wood, so maybe "They're trying to burn green wood, so what will they do with dry wood?" is meant.  Anyway the general idea is that bad things are happening now and worse ones are coming. 

Here's what the editors of this edition say about it:

When a perfectly good green tree is burned (that is, when Christ sacrifices himself on the cross), what can the dry wood of fallen and broken humanity expect to find when it meets with fire? Fallen humanity can follow Christ to new life, but only at a price.

Well, that's obviously true, and the novel is very much about suffering, but I'm not totally convinced either that it's the correct interpretation of the words themselves or what Houselander had in mind in using them. I wonder if she meant something a little more specific: that her story describes the kindling of a fire in the dry wood of the people of Riverside. The plot supports that interpretation.

I mentioned the character of Solly Lee, a Jewish businessman who cynically tries to cash in on the popular devotion to Fr. Malone. That is obviously a somewhat stereotypical scenario, though probably, like most stereotypes, having some grounding in reality. But if that sounds like it might be heading toward anti-Semitism, it most definitely is not. The portrait of Solly is rich, sympathetic, and deeply and seriously engaged with his situation as a secularized Jew. To say much more than that I'd have to give away more of the story than I want to.  Suffice to say that it is not a hostile portrait.

*

The Trump indictment is a disaster for the nation. I say that with no sympathy at all for Trump himself. I think I've made my low opinion of him sufficiently clear over the years; search for his name on this blog if you want verification. If this involved a serious crime I would support it. But it's transparently contrived for political purposes, as the basic offenses are not only misdemeanors but misdemeanors for which the statute of limitations has expired, turned into felonies by the charge that they were committed in pursuit of another and so far unspecified crime. Even the vigorously anti-Trump David Frum thinks it's a bad case: 

From the moment rumors swirled that the Manhattan district attorney would move against Trump, many of us felt an inward worry: Did Alvin Bragg have a case that would justify his actions? The early reports were not encouraging. Many Trump-unfriendly commentators published their qualms. Over a week of speculation, though, it seemed wise to withhold judgment until the actual indictment was available to read. Now the document has been published. The worriers were right.

That's from The Atlantic, and I can't read the whole piece because I'm not a subscriber, so I don't know where he goes from there. I am a subscriber to Bari Weiss's Free Press, which has this analysis from Eli Lake; maybe you can read it. After explaining how thin the case is, he says:

All of this raises a question—not just for Bragg, but for the Democratic Party, the online resistance, and the media ecosystem that seems to exist simply to stoke outrage about Donald Trump for its overstimulated, progressive base: Is it worth it? Is the catharsis of seeing Trump indicted worth the damage a politicized prosecution of the former president will do?

Trump is bad, but it's the Democrats' reaction to him that is doing the most to tear this nation apart. Are they willing to do it because they know that Trump's supporters will be enraged enough to make him the Republican nominee next year, and believe they can defeat him? Or is it just the blood lust, the pleasure of humiliating the man they hate so much? (I was very surprised a while back to hear a progressive friend deny that she and others hate Trump. It confirmed my impression that zealous progressives are remarkably unaware of the demeanor which they present to those not of their faith.)

Either way, they are enlarging, possibly beyond repair, the rip in the fabric of our society. They are feeding the divisions that led to Trump's election in the first place. And they don't care. There are tens of millions of decent people who support Trump and believe that the ruling class of this country despises them and wants to render them powerless, or worse. Now you're encouraging them to believe that the law will not protect them if the progressive establishment goes after them. I suppose the Democrats think they can control the outcome, permanently defeating their enemies. And they may be right. But what will be the cost? 

One day, if history is told with any accuracy, they will be held in deserved contempt (along, probably, with Trump himself). But it will be too late to heal the nation. 

On that grim note, I'll sign off till after Easter. 

*

On second thought, I won't leave it on that note. Something reminded me of this picture, taken last fall at a state park in north Alabama. The light was extraordinary and though my phone didn't really capture it, it's still rather pretty.

LightInTrees-WheelerStatePark


Caryl Houselander: The Dry Wood

I thought I was reasonably familiar with Houselander's work, but it came as a surprise to me to learn that she had written a novel: only this one, published in 1947. So when I saw an ad for an online seminar on the book, a joint effort from Dappled Things and the Collegium Institute, I signed up. 

There were four sessions, and of course participants were assigned a set of chapters to read for each session. Being a bad student, I usually just managed to get each week's assignment done in time for the class, except for the second week when I ended up still one or two chapters behind when the appointed hour came. Had I been an actual student, held accountable for not having read quite all the assignment, I would have been tempted to cast a little of the blame on the author, for not having made the story interesting enough. 

It is not a page-turner. In fact, after the first week's reading I said to myself This is not a novel at all, but rather a lyrical meditation on Christian themes. But "novel" is a very, very broad category, especially since sometime in the 20th century when the kind of fiction known (at least by its practitioners and fans) as "experimental" stretched the concept so that it could include almost any non-factual prose of sufficient length. For that reason among others I won't push my initial reaction.

But I can't escape it entirely. The Dry Wood is certainly a novel by any reasonable definition; the  question is whether it's a good one. Answering that question obviously requires some reasonably definite idea of what a novel is and what makes a good one. Now, having finished the book and given it some thought, I've come to this relatively firm conclusion: it's not all that good a novel, but it's a very good book. 

It is a story, and it has a cast of characters who do one thing and another. Still, my description of it as a lyrical meditation on Christian themes is justifiable. It comes across to me more as a sort of tableau, a series of pictures, than as a flowing stream of narrative. And the pictures are accompanied by words which are often...well, it's hard to find a word that doesn't have at least slightly negative connotations, at least with regard to a novel. "Preachy" is obviously negative, but not unwarranted. "Didactic" is only a little better. "Homiletical," maybe. Somewhat abstractedly theological, anyway. But whether the negative suggestion is deserved depends very much on what the author is trying to do. I think these qualities are best considered not as a fault in a novel but as a virtue in the sort of book this is. 

I think it can be compared to a couple of C.S. Lewis's books: The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. Both these have the fictional elements of plot and character, but as far as I know they are not generally called novels. The Dry Wood is far more a novel than either of them, but it has in common with them that neither plot nor character is as finely and elaborately drawn as we expect in a novel, and like them it exhibits, contrary to standard fictional advice and practice, at least as much tell as show.  Yet those of us who like the Lewis books don't regard their un-novelistic qualities as defects; we're judging them by a different standard. 

I suppose I'm dwelling so much on this in part because I keep imagining what an ordinary secular-minded reader would make of Houselander's novel. In fact one of the questions proposed for discussion in the seminar was whether one would recommend the book to such a reader. My immediate reaction, thinking of several people I know who are anywhere from indifferent to hostile to Christianity, was an immediate and definite no. Perhaps I'm underestimating them, but I can only envision them dismissing the book as preaching, and that mainly to the converted. The homiletic element is deeply and often mystically Catholic, engaging and moving to one who sees the world in much the same way, dismissable as misty nonsense by one who does not. Someone in the seminar made me laugh by calling some passages of the book "spiritual purple prose." I think Flannery O'Connor would not have liked it; she thought even Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest too heavy on ideas. 

The basic situation in the novel is this: the saintly priest, Fr. Malone, of a parish in a poor dockside London neighborhood called Riverside has just died. Members of the parish, including Fr. Malone's successor Fr. O'Grady, believe that Fr. Malone was (is) in fact a saint and are caught up in a fervent desire to see a miracle which can be attributed to him. To this end they come together in a novena asking him to save the life of a child, Willie Jewel, who is beloved by the whole community. Born with birth defects that will prevent him from ever walking or speaking, but always smiling and responsive, and now apparently declining toward death, he has been taken to heart by the community as a sort of little Christ of their own, a Christ-child who embodies the suffering of their own impoverished life while seeming to transcend it, and to whom they can bring little things that please him. 

The story of the novel is essentially the progress of that novena and its effects on the relatively large cast of characters: Willie's parents; the agnostic physician Dr. Moncrieff who thinks Willie probably should not have been born at all; the young ex-Communist convert Timothy Green (he's the one who first made me think of The Screwtape Letters); Rose O'Shane, a fading beauty with a drinking problem; Solly Lee, a Jewish tailor and businessman who attempts to make a good sum of money off holy cards featuring Fr. Malone; Carmen Fernandez, a beautiful young woman more or less the kept lover of Solly Lee; the wise Archbishop Crecy, unsure of how far the enthusiasm for Fr. Malone ought to be allowed to go; Monsignor Frayne, a somewhat too urbane convert from the Church of England.

Those who are acquainted with Houselander's work will find familiar themes, most notably the idea that every person is Christ, fully alive in some, struggling to be born in others. There's also the sympathy and indeed love for the poor, and the necessity of the embrace of suffering. And skepticism, tinged with ridicule, of rich Christians who think they can drop in now and then and improve the poor, of activist Christians who believe that what the faith needs is a Movement led by the talented who can make it more attractive to the world. The book is not heavy on humor, but it does have some funny moments, and some of them are at the expense of these last two. 

A taste of both the style and the sensibility of the book is in order:

The sun was going down when Father O'Grady reached the Jewels', and in the warm light the man and woman looked as if they were made of bronze. But Willie, even in this light, was a child of ivory.

He was as fair as his parents were dark, and his fairness, with its contrast to his own flesh and blood, added to the unspoken and perhaps unrealized impression among the people that there was something supernatural about the child. An innocent, who is visibly destined to die young, could not fail to have a certain radiance for people of simple faith. A little creature shining as purely from the waters of Baptism as on the day when they were first poured on him, and soon to be in the blue fields of Heaven. But when, as in Willie's case, such a little creature also suffers, and suffers with a smile on his face, then indeed it is hard to measure the awe, the sense of mystery, with which poor people approach him.

For those without the means that riches give for hiding, drugging, and disguising sorrow, or the ways that more sophisticated people have of finding at least temporary escape from its realization within themselves, suffering is not in itself a thing to be dreaded, as it is dreaded by those who imagine themselves to be more fortunate....

Those who suffer always are the aristocracy of the poor. So Willie Jewel was unique in the love and reverence of the people of Riverside. Not indeed that they wanted to see a child suffer, but they did want to be constantly easing his suffering, bringing him their gifts, seeing his sudden radiant smile, and a flush of pink on his white face. They came to him as simply as the shepherds did to the Child in the manger: not exactly glad that their God shivered in human flesh and lacked all things, yet glad that, since He chose to need, He needed the gifts that they had to give....

Remember, by the way, that Houselander had been among poor people and been poor herself, so this is not sentimentality--or if it is, it has a solid core. If you think some of it is a bit much, especially in a novel, well, I sympathize with you. But I repeat: this is a good book, a book I will re-read. And though I don't know what  a reader who is unfamiliar with Houselander would think of it, I'm fairly sure that those who do know her other work will find it worthy to stand with the rest. Possibly--just possibly--an evaluation of all her work would put this one at the top, as it brings together all her themes very powerfully.

This book is one (the first?) in a series from Catholic University of America Press called Catholic Women Writers. Its aim is to re-publish works by Catholic women writers who have been neglected, or in some cases neglected works by writers like Muriel Spark, who have received fairly wide attention. The series is edited by two academics, Bonnie Landers Johnson and Julia Meszaros. Dr. (I assume) Meszaros was the presenter for two sessions of the seminar, and on the basis of that I am very happy to say that all is not lost in academia. 

I should mention, too, something very dear to my old-fashioned paper-book-loving heart: the physical production of the book is lovely and should be durable. At my age that latter quality isn't so important to me personally, but if anyone wants to read my copy after I'm gone it should be in good shape.

Houselander-TheDryWood


What Is Actually Happening: 2023

The collection of writings by Alfred Delp, S.J. which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago has a long introduction by Thomas Merton. I'm not a Merton enthusiast, having found what I've read of his work (not all that much) a somewhat mixed bag, but this essay, dated October 1962, is excellent.

Fr. Delp reminds us that somewhere in the last fifty years we have entered a mysterious limit set by Providence and have entered a new era. We have, in some sense, passed a point of no return, and it is both useless and tragic to continue to live in the nineteenth century.... [T]here has been a violent disruption of society and a radical overthrow of that modern world which goes back to Charlemagne.

Now, sixty years after Merton wrote this, roughly eighty years since Delp wrote, the truth of these words is hardly arguable. The end of the Christian era and its impending replacement by something yet to be known had already been a frequent topic of notice and speculation since sometime in the 19th century and has continued ever since, so neither Delp nor Merton can be credited with any unusual insight on that point alone. The difference between them and, say, Matthew Arnold ("two worlds, one dead") or Yeats ("what rough beast") was that they were seeing the likely shape of the new age: violent totalitarianism.

Delp was, naturally, speaking mostly, and with the utmost personal concern, of Nazism and the devastating war it had brought upon the world. And much of Merton's essay takes up a similar theme. After quoting Delp that "Modern man is not even capable of knowing God," Merton says:

In order to  understand these harsh assertions by Fr. Delp we must remember they were written by a man in prison, surrounded by Nazi guards. When he speaks of "modern man," he is in fact speaking of the Nazis or of their accomplices and counterparts.

Delp and Merton both feared that violent totalitarianism might be the most characteristic face of the new age, though both were wise enough to see that it was only the face, and that the inner nature of the thing involved, in fact required, a revolution in the idea of what human life is, what it is for, and what it can be. 

The Soviet Union continued to carry the totalitarian banner until 1990. And when it fell there was a sigh of relief: that danger had been quashed, maybe or even probably forever, and modernity, understood as a general application of classical liberalism, was free to continue on the wide bright road illuminated by the twin beacons of Science and Freedom. But liberalism had either turned into or been replaced by something else: the same philosophical or religious disease that had produced fascism and communism, the faith and hope that mankind (or, in the case of fascism, a certain subset thereof) can achieve self-salvation by transforming the immanent world.

This involves the liberation of mankind, either collectively or individually or both, from the limitations which thwart us. It requires, first, liberation from God, who always in one way or another says "Thou shalt not" to something that man deeply wants to do. And then it involves all other constraints once thought (still thought by many) to be an essential part of the way things are, not subject to removal. These include, especially include, physical reality. As for moral reality--well, is there any morality apart from that which produces a result which makes us happy? And don't trouble yourself too much about analyzing the nature of happiness: how can it be anything but a condition of comfort in both mind and body? And every person will have his own view of what that entails.

In apparent, but not actual, contradiction, this total liberation requires molding and controlling people to make them fit inhabitants of the new age. If it doesn't begin with explicit totalitarianism, it eventually arrives there, because people won't naturally become what the ideology requires that they become. The fanatical progressivism that has seized so much of our culture is of this cloth. At bottom it's of a piece with fascism and communism, in that it is an attempt to create a new humanity. It isn't very violent now and may never be, because it exercises so much power without violence, and is steadily gaining more. If it can, for instance, close off certain important lines of work to anyone who dissents from its program, or shut down the public expression of dissenting views, it doesn't need violence. (If you think it isn't working on those and achieving some results, you aren't paying attention.)

I'm hardly the first or only person to make these basic observations. I'm working up to saying two things:

1) We can now see pretty clearly the shape of the new ideal of civilization that is replacing the Christian one. And we can see that it is in essence a product of the same force that produced fascism and communism, even though progressivism, loathes the former and doesn't take the crimes of the latter very seriously, and in principle abhors violence. But compulsion may be exercised without violence. Relatively non-violent totalitarianism--"soft totalitarianism," as some have called it--may succeed where violent hard totalitarianism failed.

2) The thing that I refer to as a "force" is the spirit of Antichrist. I've never been one, and still am not one, to make judgments about whether we are or are not in the end times. Maybe we are, maybe we aren't. And I don't claim that we are now or soon will be under the rule of the Antichrist. What I think is pretty clear is that the spiritual driving force of the current effort to remake humanity is the same one that will become or will produce, if it hasn't already, the Antichrist. "You will become as gods." It may not be the regime of the actual Antichrist, but it is of the Antichrist.

Rod Dreher recently quoted a letter of Pope Benedict

We see how the power of the Antichrist is expanding, and we can only pray that the Lord will give us strong shepherds who will defend his church in this hour of need from the power of evil.

In short, this is What Is Actually Happening, and it's important that Christians recognize it and have no illusions about it, especially as the humanitarian aspects of the Antichristic spirit are often superficially similar to Christian ethics. The essential difference is that the former always points and leads away from God, where the latter always points and leads toward him.

*

These thoughts were provoked not only by Delp and Merton, but by a remark in a fascinating book which I recently began to read: Jacques Barzun's history of the modern world, From Dawn to Decadence. This was another case when I picked up a book from the library discard shelf, let it sit around for a couple of years, and then, when I moved recently and had to pack up the books, considered giving it back to the library. But I leafed through it, read the opening pages, and decided to keep it.

The book begins with the Protestant revolution. In discussing Puritanism, Barzun says this:

Revolutions paradoxically begin by promising freedom and then turn coercive and "puritanical," to save themselves from both discredit and reaction.

Is that the meaning of the frenzied efforts by fanatical progressives to restrict any and all speech that contradicts their views or even causes them distress? Many institutions and areas of life are now well under their control, but there is certainly reaction. Maybe the intensity of the effort to suppress it is indicative of a grip not yet as tight as it wishes to be.


An Advent Note

This year I have to a great extent managed to stay clear of the un-Christmas, the festivity now generally referred to in public as Holiday, or "the Holidays." That was partly because of various circumstances that kept me even more at home than usual. And it was partly the silver lining in Alabama having lost two games this season. I loathe TV commercials in general, and rarely watch TV that includes them. But when I do see them it's during football season, and from some time in October until the end of the year many of them involve Holiday, and thus are doubly, no triply, annoying. But Alabama football was over at the end of the regular season--no SEC championship game, no watching other games that might affect Alabama's place in the playoff picture--but also no more Holiday commercials. (I only care about the NFL when former Alabama players are prominent--congratulations, Jalen Hurts.)

And it was partly just the latest phase in a general re-orientation of my feelings at this time of  year. I've realized that one element of my hostility to Holiday was the way it had come to seem like something of a parody of Christmas. So it seemed like a cheat, making me struggle not to dislike it, even to hate it.

But as the divergence has continued I find that the two are now more separate in my mind. I wrote about this last year in my very brief career writing for The Lamp. And I find that this year I've been more able to take my own advice, and that Holiday does not much intrude on my observance of Advent. I'm even mildly cheered by the lights and other spectacles at people's houses, though walking into a store pretty much sours my mood, as does the Holiday music (which naturally gets stuck in my head).

Which does not mean that I've been very good about observing Advent by treating it more like Lent. But I have done something, and in this department something is always better than nothing. And one thing I've done is to begin reading a book that I've had for several years and that is very well suited to Advent: the prison writings of Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.

Alfred_Delp_MSM_2018_540x

Delp was an opponent of the Nazi regime, and in the last days of the Reich he was arrested on a charge of involvement in a plot against Hitler. He was not involved, but the prosecutor was determined to convict him of something, and as is almost inevitably the case when the law becomes a tool in the hands of power, he succeeded. It was late 1944 and early 1945, when the Reich was clearly doomed, and its enemies were pouring destruction upon Germany; the consequences of the nation's madness were being made brutally clear. The prison writings are the voice of a man unjustly imprisoned by and facing death at the hands of unreasoning and implacable enemies, a man stripped of any impulse toward sentimentality and false hope. It's a voice I need to hear. 

Unless we have been shocked to our depths at ourselves and the things we are capable of, as well as at the failings of humanity as a whole, we cannot understand the full import of Advent.

If the whole message of the coming of God, of the day of salvation, of approaching redemption, is to seem more than a divinely inspired legend or a bit of poetic fiction, two things must be accepted unreservedly.

First, that life is both powerless and futile insofar as by itself it has neither purpose nor fulfillment. It is powerless and futile within its own range of existence and also as a consequence of sin. To this must be added the rider that life clearly demands both purpose and fulfillment. 

Secondly it must be recognized that it is God's alliance with humanity, his being on our side, ranging himself with us, that corrects this state of meaningless futility. It is necessary to be conscious of God's decision to enlarge the boundaries of his own supreme existence by condescending to share ours for the overcoming of sin.

It follows that life, fundamentally, is a continuous Advent; hunger and thirst and awareness of lack involve movement toward fulfillment. But this also means that in this progress toward fulfillment humanity is vulnerable; we are perpetually moving toward, and are capable of receiving, the ultimate revelation with all the pain inseparable from that achievement.

While time lasts there can be no end to it all and to try to bring the quest to an ultimate conclusion is one of the illusory temptations to which human nature is exposed. In fact hunger and thirst and wandering in the wilderness and perpetual rescue by a sort of life-line are all part of the ordinary hazards of human existence. 


A Monster

Our new house is on the water, and I now have the privilege of watching the sun set over Mobile Bay every evening. I was doing so one day a week or so ago, standing on the front porch. I only caught the last moments before the sun went below the horizon, but frequently that's when the real spectacle begins, and goes on for twenty minutes or more. I stood there until it was almost fully dark, and I was about to go in when something odd in the water caught my eye.

Like almost every house on the bay, ours has a pier. I don't know exactly how long it is but it's over two hundred feet. Out a bit past the end of it, between our neighbor's pier and ours, there was a weird thrashing in the water. And when I say "weird" I mean to suggest some of the old connotations of the word, those which made Shakespeare call the witches who helped to doom Macbeth "the weird sisters." 

There was something not right about what I was seeing. It was not any of the normal disturbances of the water. In the bay one often sees mullet leap out of the water, sometimes travelling several feet before they fall back. One sees gulls swoop down and snatch something out of the water, or try to; there's a quick and shallow splash, and they spring away. Hunting pelicans, big heavy birds with a wingspan of four or five feet, climb, hang, then drop like bombs with a noisy splash on whatever they have seen, going well under water. And when they surface they often sit for a few moments or more, perhaps enjoying their catch. Getting back into the air again seems to be a lot of work for them. Now and then there are diving ducks, marvelously slick and cool swimmers and divers; they hardly disturb the surface at all. 

And then there are the dolphins, with their well-known arcing plunge, dorsal fins out of the water in a way that momentarily spooks anyone who's ever seen a movie about sharks. And once in a long while one might see something that looks at a glance like a floating log, but is too low in the water and has a couple of rounded knobs at one end: an alligator, its eyes a little higher than the rest of it. Mobile Bay is an estuary, and though the river delta which empties into it is full of alligators, I saw only a few over the span of the thirty years that we lived in our old house. It was roughly ten miles south of the delta, and now we are another ten miles down. So I may never see an alligator here; the Gulf of Mexico is only a few miles away, and the water is saltier than suits the gator. 

This was none of those things. It was a slow clumsy flopping and thrashing along the surface of the water, almost a hopping movement. But there is nothing that normally hops on the surface of the water. For a few moments I felt a creeping uneasiness. For a few moments I felt I was seeing some unknown and perhaps menacing form of life. I'm not sure whether the word "monster" actually entered my mind or not, but what I felt was something like what I imagine one might feel on spying an actual sea monster. As much as I love being near the water, I also have, at times, a trace of primitive fear of it, the fear that Job implies when he praises God for confining the sea to its limits: "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further." And whatever I was seeing touched that nerve.

I walked out to the water's edge and soon realized what the thing was: a bird, apparently injured, trying to swim with its wings. It was like a person doing the breast stroke, that absurd method of swimming which seems designed for maximum inefficiency. The poor bird thrashed at the water with its wings and was propelled forward for a foot or two, paused, then thrashed again. It was moving parallel to the shore, and up the bay, which is to say more or less northeasterly, away from the Gulf. 

Then the more-strange began. I was standing on the bulkhead, at the foot of the pier. The bird got a little past the end of our pier, then made an abrupt hard right turn and headed toward me. I stood there and waited for him--I will call him "him" because that's what my wife always does with any wild creature unless its sex is obvious (even when, as with a spider, it may be inaccurate) and I rather like that, and because I soon had a sort of relationship with him which the use of "it" would seem to disrespect.

I stepped out onto the rocks and concrete rubble which constitute the bulk of the bulkhead. The bird continued toward me. I sat down on the rocks. He came to them and very slowly struggled up a few feet over the rocks until I could reach him. I picked him up. He offered no resistance and did not seem alarmed. I took him to the porch, where there was enough light to get a good look at him. 

He was a seabird, a tern, not very large. He was hopelessly, and without human assistance fatally, entangled in some kind of very fine, very strong, pale green nylon (or other synthetic) thread. I thought at first it was fishing line, but I've never seen any fishing line so extremely fine. Some kind of net, perhaps? I don't know. But everything except his wings--his webbed feet, his long pointed beak--was immobilized. He could not properly swim, and he could not open his beak, and so could not eat. I don't know why he could not fly but I suspect that he had at one time been able to, but had completely exhausted himself, so that one flap every ten seconds or so was all he could manage, enough to keep him hopping along the surface of the water but not enough to get him airborne. The thread was also tightly looped around his neck, deep within the feathers, which may have been doing further harm. 

I called for someone to bring me a pair of scissors, and together we spent ten minutes or so snipping away at the thread. The bird remained still and unresisting, though he did manage one squawk of fear or outrage after his bill was freed and he could do so. When we had finished, I set him on a piling by the water, from which he immediately fell. But, feet now free, he paddled over to the sandy shore of the vacant lot next door, stepped out of and away from the water, and settled down onto the sand. 

I offered him a bit of bread and a bit of tuna (they eat fish, don't they?). But he was not interested. He just sat there perfectly still. So I left him there. An hour later I checked on him and he was still there, but at my approach he got up and walked into the water. An hour or so after that I checked on him and he was gone: on his wings, I hope. 

Now, maybe this means nothing. Yes, it was an odd incident. But purely naturalistic explanations are ready to hand and plausible. He had been struggling for God knows how long and come God knows how far. Perhaps initially he had been able to fly, but, unable to eat or free himself, he had gradually become so exhausted that the thrashing breast stroke, wingbeats a couple of seconds apart, was absolutely all he could do. And the exhaustion would certainly explain the docility. 

I'm a natural skeptic and not one to turn quickly to supernatural or even merely providential explanations for phenomena that might suggest them; in fact I probably err on the skeptical side, probably more reluctant than required by strict adherence reason to see the hand of God at work. Physical causality and coincidence can explain almost everything if you want them to.

But as I listen to the interior voice that would explain away this incident I keep being stopped by that hard right turn. That is an accurate description: it was as direct a ninety-degree turn as you would make to turn right at an intersection. The bird turned right and came straight toward me. Considering that it had miles of water in which to decide--by whatever means a bird decides--to head toward shore, the fact that it did so when it was directly opposite me is at minimum a very striking coincidence. And it only did so when I had come out to get a better look at it. And it came straight toward me, in contradiction to the normal behavior of wild things, in which fear and flight are the instinctive responses to the human, not hesitating even when it was only a few feet away, climbing out of the water and struggling over the rocks directly to me. 

It was as if in that extremity the bird's natural barrier broke down. He was going to die if he were not freed from the thread that bound him. And somehow he saw in me the possibility of help, and came to me, against his normal instincts, as the only alternative to death.

I am one of those people, those perhaps somewhat ridiculous people, who are disturbed almost to the point of nihilism by the pain of the world. I'm a little ashamed of this, because my own circumstances are quite comfortable. Get a grip on yourself, I say to myself. But Dante's picture of the love that moves the stars seems untenable in the face of the suffering that happens at every moment of time on this planet. There is nothing in what we can see that plausibly suggests that the cycle of birth, pleasure, pain, and death is less than an absolute rule for all creatures in all places at all times, or that there is any reason for it beyond whatever immediate circumstance produces it, or that any of it has any meaning independent of the subjective experience of the creature.

This bird's approach to me, and my ability to help, was for me a moment when something else shone through material cause and effect. It was a bit of evidence that although all of creation "groaneth and travaileth" there is something beyond, a justification for believing that the promise of redemption and healing is not a fantasy. "Coincidence" is not an adequate word for the force that brought bound and helpless suffering together with mercy and a pair of scissors. 

The word "monster" shares an etymology with words like "demonstrate": Latin words rooted in the basic concept of to show, to point out. The direct ancestor of "monster" diverged early on to mean specifically a strange and uncanny thing, often serving as a warning or omen. But though all monsters startle, the message they bring is not always bad, at least if we have properly understood it, and anyway is almost always one we need to hear.

"Monstrance" comes from the same root. 

TernAs best I can determine, he is of the species known as the Royal Tern. 


Vatican II; Sherwood; Trump the Jerk

Continuing the discussion of the success or failure of Vatican II, from this post: Ross Douthat (as quoted by Rod Dreher, because I can't view Douthat's entire New York Times column) asserts that the council was and is a failure on its own terms. The measures intended to invite and draw "modern man" to the Church have been accompanied not by growth but by decline, as measured by membership and activity, at least in Euro-American civilization. That's a plain fact. Whether the decline would have been greater or lesser without the council can only be speculative. I'm sure that question has been studied and answers attempted, but it's the sort of thing where sociologists can probably make either case, depending on what questions they ask and how, and on their own predilections. (Is sociology a science? Not really. Statistical methods are no doubt mathematically sound, but they don't choose or interpret their own data.)

In that post I linked to this one by Larry Chapp which goes ferociously after the follies that came and have continued, following and often in the name of the council. Let's call that Chapp 1, because there is also Chapp 2, which says that the council was "a success, in spite of the many deviations from orthodoxy and sanity that followed in its wake."

Success or failure, then? It's largely a matter of the time frame in which one makes the judgment. Douthat is looking at the time from the end of the council till now, and in that frame it is certainly true that the council has not succeeded in making the Church any more of a factor in modern life than it had previously been. One could argue about whether it is less so--I think it is--but it is clearly not more so. "Modern man" in the mass has only drifted, or in many cases run, away from Christianity at large and the Catholic Church in particular. In fact it is not at all fantastic to foresee, a century or two from now, the reduction of the Church to a few tiny bands of holdouts, as in Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, at least within that part of the world which was once known as Christendom.

The argument of Chapp 2 is really twofold. The first part, that the council has been a great success, is really not based on a measurement of success in the terms Douthat examines (in fact Chapp agrees with Douthat's assessment in that respect) but on the assertion that many or most of the council's changes (the actual changes, not those speciously done in its name) were for the better--the vernacular liturgy, for instance--and are now taken for granted. Some of those, the liturgy in particular, are, as we all know, still very much debated, but I agree with Chapp that they were good. It's only an accident of history that I appear to be a "conservative" Catholic; I've always said that if I had been an adult Catholic at the time of the council I would almost certainly have sympathized, at least, with its aims and the documents produced by it.

The second part of Chapp 2's argument is that the council will in time be truly successful, contributing powerfully to the long-term health of the Church and the effectiveness of its mission. Chapp 2 accepts that these things can take quite a long time--centuries--to work themselves out. I certainly hope so and am willing to believe it, but none of us will be here to see it. (I personally, as I lamented in that other post, cannot look forward to anything but continued intramural strife.) Chapp presents a picture of a renewal which he believes the council intended, and which he believes may yet come, and I very much share that view and that hope.

As for the present, though, Chapp 1 presents a grim and discouraging picture, not nearly as positive as Chapp 2. For me the grimmest single item in that piece is the mention of the progressive party, encouraged by Pope Francis, as viewing the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as an "interruption" of the council's work. This view represents nothing less than the abandonment of authentic renewal and the re-energizing of the destructive forces which would turn the Church into something like liberal Protestantism, a voice of solicitous approval for whatever is demanded by and for the therapeutic mentality.

Philip Rieff saw this very clearly at the time the council was actually in progress:

What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution--under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic.

Some of the psychobabble I've seen attributed to the "synod on synodality" supports--no, expresses--that view.

*

The emergence of the very well produced cinematic work for which the term "television series" is inadequate is, like craft beer, one of the compensations for living in a culture which seems to be falling apart, both in an organizational sense and in the sense of mental breakdown. I've just finished watching a new one from the Brits, Sherwood. It falls into the pretty conventional category of "crime drama," but a very very good one. It's set in a place referred to bitterly as a "former mining town" in Nottinghamshire; both Sherwood Forest and an archer are involved. 

The story takes place in the present day but has deep roots in the mining strikes of the 1980s. I don't know very much at all about those, but I know the British left hated and still hates Margaret Thatcher as much as the American left hated Ronald Reagan, so I don't necessarily take the show's view of those conflicts as the last word. But I don't doubt that they were as bitter as portrayed. 

It's a very complex story, very well done, on a level with Broadchurch, among the best in this genre. Maybe no single character is quite as memorable or as memorably performed as those portrayed by David Tennant and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch, but anyone who watches a lot of British TV will recognize many faces, if not the names that go with them. It's available on Britbox via Amazon. 

*

Donald Trump is a jerk. That's been pretty obvious all along. His presidency had some very good results (and some very bad ones), but his basic and base nature didn't improve. He did not, as some hoped, rise to the office. What his supporters liked to dismiss as "mean tweets" were often expressions of a really deep ugliness. He's now vilifying Ron DeSantis, a popular conservative  who actually cares about and is skilled at governing, because, as Rich Lowry says, DeSantis is in his way:

Trump will have no compunction about crushing the future of the party to maintain his grip for another two years and possibly beyond.  

It's grimly appropriate, I guess, that a nation in such decline as ours, committed to narcissism as a way of life, would have two presidents in succession who are men of such plainly bad character, each in his own very special way.


Nietzsche, The Atheist Who Didn't Flinch

...the Enlightenment effectively tore out the foundations from under the polite bourgeois morality that it wished to maintain. You cannot do this, says Nietzsche. You have unchained the earth from the sun, a move of incalculable significance. By doing so, you have taken away any basis for a metaphysics that might ground either knowledge or ethics.... The cheerful and chipper atheism of a Richard Dawkins or a Daniel Dennett is not for Nietzsche because it fails to see the radical consequences of its rejection of God. To hope that, say evolution will make us moral would be to assume a meaning and order to nature that can only really be justified on a prior metaphysical basis that itself transcends nature, or simply to declare by fiat and with no objective justification that certain things we like or of which we approve are intrinsically good. 

--Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

I haven't finished this book yet, and will probably have more to say about it. But it's actually better than I expected--not that I didn't expect it to be good, but it's both wider and deeper than I thought it would be. 


More Rieff (3)

A brief but telling few paragraphs on the situation of Christianity in the new culture:

What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution--under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic. For the next culture needs therapeutic institutions.

After quoting a writer of the time, John Wren-Lewis, who dismisses all the actually religious aspects of religion, Rieff continues:

[Wren-Lewis] understands that churchmen will be able to become professional therapeutics "only if they break away radically from almost all, if not all, of their traditional religious pursuits." Here speaks the therapeutic, calmly confident that community life no longer needs "some supposed plan underlying experience," that is, no longer needs doctrinal integrations of self into communal purposes, elaborated, heretofore, precisely through such "supposed plans."....

Both East and West are now committed, culturally as well as economically, to the gospel of self-fulfillment. Yet neither the American nor the Russian translations of the gospel can be transformed into a spiritual perception.

Nor does the present ferment in the Roman Catholic Church seem so much like a renewal of spiritual perception as a move toward more sophisticated accommodations with the negative communities of the therapeutics. Grudgingly, the Roman churchmen must give way to their Western laity and translate their sacramental rituals into comprehensible terms as therapeutic devices. (p. 215)

That was 1966. The so-called "spirit of Vatican II" and many other developments would soon prove Rieff's prophetic insight. Clearly a great many Christians, clergy and other, have taken this path toward the therapeutic, not so much by a conscious decision as by having absorbed the view of the surrounding culture, that Christianity is essentially a sort of local  or specific implementation of a presumed general drive toward self-enrichment. 

Wren-Lewis took an interesting turn later in life after a near-death experience, becoming a believer in a kind of transcendent consciousness. 


More Rieff (2)

To end the spiritual impoverishment of Western culture, Jung recommends the following: that the rationalist suppression of myth and of other manifestations of the unconscious need mitigation, but not by a new theology or new dogmas; rather, by a therapeutic release of the myth components from the collective unconscious. The neurosis of modernity is defined by Jung as the suppression of precisely those irrational components. Therefore, Jung is recommending an essentially private religiosity without institutional reference or communal membership for the individual in need of an integrated symbolism....

In other words, "spiritual but not religious." In essence, this is a fairly common observation, though we usually hear it praised rather than viewed with Rieff's dry skepticism, and where it's criticized, not so precisely. What follows, though, is a little surprising:

This, then, is a religion for heretics in an age where orthodoxy no longer serves the sense of well-being. Jung's is a literary religion that demands more imagination than faith, more magic than science, more creativity than morality. Jung never analyzes the social structures within which all creative symbolisms occur. Indeed, he seems unaware of social structure. His psychology of the creative unconscious is remarkably old-fashioned, a secular version of the theology of the Creative Person which forms the central pillar of the huge and variegated growth we know today as Protestant theology. (p. 114)

My emphasis. I assume he's referring there to liberal Protestantism. It certainly doesn't seem to describe fundamentalist-evangelical Protestantism, at least not of Rieff's time. But I have the impression that the therapeutic mentality has made great inroads there in recent years, in what's been called "moral therapeutic deism." 

Oh look: MTD has a Wikipedia page


The Most Beautiful Phrase In the English Language?

One of the most, anyway:

    Poor Clare of Perpetual Adoration

I remember the first time I encountered it, many years ago, and being struck by its beauty. Like anything that gets pulled into everyday use, it ends up being taken for granted; losing its luster, and even, maybe, depending on where and how you encounter it, having unpleasant associations. But if you can clear all that away, it shines. 

The phrase Perpetual Adoration alone is rather wonderful. I am happy that once a week, at least, sometimes more, I am able to participate in something that is called by that rich name.

Today is St. Clare's memorial, and here is a good post by Amy Welborn about her. I was struck by the advice she (Clare) gave to St. Agnes: appealing to her vanity, in a backwards, poverty is wealth, sort of way. 


Abigail Rine Favale: Into the Deep

I do not know how to pronounce the author's last name,  and for that matter am not entirely certain about her middle name. This bothered me a bit every time I picked up the book, and is, obviously, bothering me a little right now. But it didn't prevent me from reading, enjoying, and admiring the book.

Subtitled "An Unlikely Catholic Conversion," this is the memoir of a young woman (now middle-aged, I guess) who grew up in a conservative evangelical family and subculture, partly rejected and partly drifted away from it in favor of academic feminism, and in time found her way to the Catholic Church.

That is an unusual but in its broad outline not exactly unheard-of story. Conversion stories in general are hardly rare, even conversion of many initially quite hostile to the faith; the propagation of the gospel begins with them. But they are all by nature somewhat similar, and are not necessarily of great interest to anyone except the convert and those who know him, including especially God. 

I had a personal reason for reading this one. I have my own unpublished, probably never-to-be-published, memoir, and a few years ago I queried a certain Catholic publisher about it. The editor replied courteously that although they have published conversion memoirs, they did not sell very well and he doesn't expect to publish any more such. Since then I've read a few that have managed to get into print in recent years and to get at least some attention from at least the Catholic press. I wanted to see what made them worthy of note.

Into the Deep is the most recent of these (most recently read, I mean, not published), and the best. That's not because it's necessarily the most intrinsically interesting story, but because it's told so well. It's quite well-written in the micro sense that the prose is well-crafted, and in the macro sense that the narrative is vivid and brings home a real sense of the author's experience. And also because her specific struggle involves matters that are very much part of our current cultural malaise: the nature and meaning of the sexes, the role of women in the world and in the Church, especially the confrontation of feminism and the Church. 

Back in the 1970s, when feminism--what I have since learned is known as second-wave feminism--was at its height, I was mildly intrigued by it and sympathetic to it. I thought then, and still think, that women in general are pretty wonderful, and that in many ways they get a bad deal. But I don't think I have many illusions about them, and I couldn't help being skeptical of what seemed to be one of feminism's assumptions: that apart from the obvious physical things there is no significant difference between the sexes. That this was false, I thought, should be obvious to anyone who looked at actual men and women. And I thought it would be a good thing if a feminist thinker would explore those differences deeply rather than try to dismiss or erase them. 

I didn't continue paying much attention for very long. The basic feminist doctrine seemed to be twofold: (1) men and women are exactly the same, except for those ways in which women are superior; (2) men and women should be treated in exactly the same way, expect for situations where it is to the advantage of women to be treated differently. This only caused me to be amused by the way feminism confirmed the stereotype of women as illogical. It certainly didn't help my perception that feminism was (and still is) zealous in political causes, most notably advocacy of abortion, that were at the time beginning to strike me as destructive. (I long ago moved past any ambivalence about their destructiveness.)

Well, here is a feminist, or at least former feminist, who has done the exploration which I had hoped to see. And it has led her precisely into the deep, into the profundity of sexual significance. Here was an important turning point:

Most of the time life moves at such a crawl that we remain blind to its constant change, but there are some experiences, like becoming a parent, that strike like lightning and, in just a flash, we are utterly altered.

This is what happened to me. When I first became pregnant, I was comfortable settled into my own unique brand of postmodern, feminist Christianity. I remember lounging on the couch amidst waves of nausea, watching news coverage of the controversial contraception mandate, rolling my eyes in anger and disgust at those regressive Catholic priests in their prim white collars, telling women what to do with their bodies.

Yet almost exactly two years later, I would be standing before such a priest at the Easter Vigil Mass, publicly confessing my desire to be received into the largest, oldest male-helmed institution in the world, the Roman Catholic Church.

Motherhood broke me open.

That breaking-open is of course among other things quite literally physical: a sensation and an experience that men can never know. The moment occurs less than one-third of the way through the book, so there is a great deal of road left to travel from here, and a great deal of reflection. There's a nice balance of the narrative and the abstract--of, to adapt the famous feminist catch-phrase, the personal and the theological. I recommend it both as a conversion memoir, and for that matter a memoir, period--I enjoyed the recounting of her early life--and as a venture into the rich topic of Catholicism and gender. 

IntoTheDeep3

I'm not keen on this cover. Apart from the fact that it's not especially appealing as a graphic, it suggests to me not conversion but a woman falling in love with a priest.

The venture continues with her new book, The Genesis of Gender, "a crash course of sorts, an insider’s look at the implicit worldview of gender theory, so people are better able to recognize the underlying claims that are being made." Here is an interview at Catholic World Report in which she discusses it.  Also at Catholic World Report, she demonstrates that she has by no means compromised her objections to some notions of feminine submission to male authoritarianism: she excoriates a book called Ask Your Husband, which seems to be an unwitting confirmation of secular feminism's view of Catholic thinking on this subject.

It seems to me that the current crisis in which enlightened opinion is no longer willing to say that a woman is an adult female human being is a fairly natural development from certain aspects of feminist thought. To their credit some feminists are willing to oppose it, which is hardly the first time that ideological revolutionaries have been horrified by some of the conclusions, theoretical and practical, drawn from their premises. It's going to be a long time before we settle down, culturally, but in the meantime Abigail Favale and others are doing very valuable work toward clearing up the very clouded waters.


Sigrid Undset: In the Wilderness

(mild spoilers)

This is the third book in the Olav AudunssonMaster of Hestviken tetralogy. (See this for comments on the second book.) It's in two parts, "The Parting of the Ways" and "The Wilderness." The first part is shorter and I take its title to refer primarily to Olav's parting from Ingunn. They were of course parted by death in the previous volume, The Snake Pit, but the separation is made definitive here, with Olav adjusting to life without Ingunn and the state of anxiety and anguish in which he had lived for most of their many years together. As is necessarily the case with the death of someone close, however much the loss may continue to be felt, the shape of day-to-day life re-forms itself, filling in the empty space and becoming normal. 

Olav makes a journey to London and spends (I think) most of a summer there. It's ostensibly a trading voyage but it's at least as much an excuse for Olav to get away from the burdens and sad memories of Hestviken. In London occurs an event which I mentioned in the last post, on The Snake Pit, as one of the few which I remembered vividly from my first reading of the tetralogy. 

At Mass in a London church, he sees a woman who looks uncannily like Ingunn--the young, healthy Ingunn who has not existed for many years. He can't take his eyes off her, can't get her out of his mind; it seems that Ingunn is being offered to him all over again--a new and improved Ingunn, perhaps. A silent flirtation and seduction takes place between them, as they see each other repeatedly at the church. She is married, to a blind man. She arranges, through a servant, a tryst, to take place in the garden of her home, and Olav goes to her. As he takes her in his arms a warning comes to him:

No, this was not [Ingunn]--and it was as though he heard a cry coming from somewhere without; a voice that he heard not with his bodily ears called to him, aloud and wild with fear, trying to warn him. From somewhere, from the ground under his feet, he thought, the cry came--Ingunn, he knew, the real Ingunn, was striving to come to his aid. He could tell that she was in the utmost distress; in bonds of powerlessness or sin she was fighting to be heard by him through the darkness that parted them....

Ingunn called to him, she was afraid he would not understand that this stranger was one who had borrowed her shape, seeking to drag him under.

Well, for the sake of those who haven't read the book but may do so, perhaps I shouldn't quote that. But then you still have to read the book to find out what happens next.

The whole London sequence is especially memorable to me, and I think part of the reason is the essentially minor fact that it is London. It occurs to me now that almost none of the action in Undset's two major works takes place in a city of much size. From time to time someone goes to Oslo, but it isn't portrayed as being very large. London seems clearly to be larger, though much smaller than any contemporary city, with the heart of the city and its waterfront not very far at all from farms and open country, and in fact a certain amount of what we would consider rural life occurring within the city proper. At any rate the somewhat awed perspective on London of Olav and his companions, and perhaps the fact that it's summer and quite a distance south from Norway gives this episode a fresh and almost holiday-ish quality, notwithstanding the fact that not everything that happens there is pleasant. 

One of the decisive spiritual events--and in Undset's vision these are as real as any physical events--is Olav's realization that even many of his sins are less grand than he liked to think. In doing such-and-such, did he sin out of essentially noble motives? Or was he at bottom only driven by the same common, base, and petty appetites that drive men whom he held in contempt? As in Kristin, the process of self-knowledge is at the heart of a lifetime's journey, and one of its essential goals.

Much of the second part, "The Wilderness," involves the gradual shrinking of Olav's life to a joyless routine of managing his estate, Hestiviken. His foster son, Eirik, Ingunn's illegitimate child whom Olav has passed off as his own, now a young man, departs, at least in part because Olav drives him away. Then comes a war which gives him, at least fleetingly, a sense of purpose, a glimpse of a way out of the wilderness. The martial joy with which he plunges into this conflict is something which our time does not readily grasp, except by way of fantasy, as in the Marvel movies and video games. Undset's rendering of the battle in which Olav takes part is remarkable simply as a piece of historical re-creation--I am assuming that she is accurate, and by all accounts that's a safe assumption--and also as a vivid narrative. It's also, I'm sure, accurate with regard to the bigger context of the wars that were taking place in Norway at the time. (In fact the first book of the tetralogy opens with a description of that context.)

But the war ends with Olav gravely wounded, recovering but permanently disfigured. He returns to Hestviken for the last act of his life's drama, in his forties, growing old by the standards of the time, still hiding the sin which he believes will cost him his soul, but which he cannot bring himself to confess.

I've seen a few comments here and there from readers to the effect that this is the least interesting of the four books, and overall they have a fair point. Nevertheless the eighty or so pages of "The Parting of the Ways" remain for me among the most profound and moving of the almost one thousand which make up the whole. 


Third-rate Atheism

I saw this some while back in the comments on some web site:

When religious laws surmount mercy & reason , we must remember that religion was written thousands of years ago, when knowledge was in it’s infancy.

I thought it was striking in the way it illustrates the vast gap, more vast than usual, between the writer's estimation of his own grasp of the subject and the reality of both the subject and his grasp of it. I mean, not only does he not know, but has no idea at all that he doesn't, but is quite sure that he does. The apostrophe is a nice finishing touch.

It's been apparent for many years now that the association of atheism with education and the use (however mistaken) of reason no longer exists. Atheists are just as likely as believers to have come to their views without much thought--to be merely following the crowd, for instance. It's just a different crowd. 

It occurs to me now to wonder if English is the commenter's second language. "Religion was written"?? Even if that's the case, it wouldn't improve the remark much. 


Sigrid Undset: The Snake Pit

This is the second book in Sigrid Undset's tetralogy which, depending on the translation, is called either The Master of Hestviken or Olav Audunsson. The latter title is from the newer translation by Tiina Nunnally, and is in my opinion a handier title, if only because it creates a justifiable symmetry between Undset's two great works of medieval Norwegian historical fiction, and is convenient when discussing the two.

This is my second reading of the tetralogy. I began this traversal with Nunnally's first volume, Vows (The Axe in the old Chater translation). However, for reasons which I've previously discussed, I've returned to the Chater translation for the remaining three books: I find it, in a word, richer, whatever the arguments about fidelity to the original may be.

The translators also disagree about the naming of the individual books, neither's names tracking the original Norwegian edition as far as I can tell, which was published in two volumes. Nunnally's Providence strikes me as less apt than The Snake Pit. The first book tells the story of Olav Audunsson's efforts to marry Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter, the woman to whom he believes himself to be betrothed (a dispute about that is at the heart of the story), in spite of major obstacles put in their way by various kin and by consequences of their own actions. In The Snake Pit they are married and able at last to return to Olav's ancestral manor, Hestviken. It is of course not going to be happily ever after, not even very often happy at all. Ingunn is sickly and not generally very capable as the mistress of a substantial estate. Olav often refers to her, tenderly and pityingly, as being almost useless, and soon ill health makes her even less capable. Both she and Olav are tormented in various ways, both practical and emotional, by the mistakes and sins of their earlier years. In the early pages of the book Olav, arriving at Hestviken, which he has not seen since he was a child, encounters a thing he had forgotten:

Olav Audunsson knew it again the moment he stepped into his own house, which he had not seen since he was a child of seven years. Never had he thought of this carving or known that he remembered it--but the moment his eye fell upon it, recognition came like a gust of wind that passes over the surface of a lake and darkens it: 'twas the doorpost of his childhood. The image of a man was carven upon it surrounded by snakes; they filled the whole surface with their windings and twistings, coiling about the man's limbs and body, while one bit him to the heart. A harp lay trampled under his feet--it was surely Gunnar Gjukesson in the snake pit.

A footnote explains:

This is Gunnar of the Volsunga Saga, the husband of Brynhild. Gunnar was thrown into the snake pit by Atle (Attila); his sister Gudrun, Sigurd's widow and Atle's wife, secretly sent him a harp, and by his playing he charmed all the snakes save one, which bit him to the heart.

That's pretty much Olav's situation. He is a solid and honorable man, and has charmed all the snakes save one, and it has bitten him almost fatally: the guilt he bears for a murder committed in the first book. . He knows that he must confess it, but if he does so he will be required to do public penance, and that will involve Ingunn and all their kin, more or less ruining his life, and Ingunn's.

Toward the end of the book Ingunn lies dying after long suffering, her always-frail body broken in some unspecified way by childbirth. (I suppose the people of the time had no way of knowing exactly what was wrong.) Olav is away from home, and when he gets the news that Ingunn is near death he is helped on his way by a young couple, Lavrans Bjorgulfsson and his wife Rangfrid. Those who have read Kristin will recognize these as Kristin's parents, still young, strong, and cheerful; it is a poignant moment.

In a profound and powerful scene, Olav's night journey through bitter cold brings him to a sort of epiphany in which he sees his situation and resolves to clear his conscience and live with whatever follows. But this resolution falters when he gets home, as he believes Ingunn to be begging him inarticulately not to expose them.

And so we are halfway through the story, and Olav has been married, then widowed, and still the serpent is biting at his heart. As I write this I'm well into the next book, and though I recall the end of the tetralogy I didn't retain many specific events from the third volume, except for one, which if my memory had not become so unreliable I would say is now permanently sealed there. More about that in a few weeks, maybe.

There are works of art that make me feel, among other emotions, a strong sense of gratitude for their existence, and toward their creators. This is one. Sigrid Undset was in her early forties when she wrote this, and already had the wisdom of a long life., no doubt born of some bitter experiences. Moreover, she was still new to the Church, but she understood the faith deeply, and the wisdom she puts into the mouths and minds of some of her characters is deep and mature. Here is Olav talking to his friend Arnvid about the murder, committed while he travelled alone with the man he would kill:

"And then it all came about as easily as if it had been laid out for me--he begged me to take him on that journey; no man was aware that we set out together. But had God or my patron or Mary Virgin directed our way to some man's house that evening and not to those deserted saeters under Luraas--you know it would have fallen out otherwise."

"I scarce think you had prayed God and the saints to watch over your journey, ere you set out?"

"I am not so sure that I did not--nay, prayed I had not truly. But all that Easter I had done nothing but pray--and I was so loath to kill him, all the time. But it was as though all things favoured me, so that I was driven to do it--and tempted to conceal it afterwards. And God, who knows all, He knew how this must turn out, better than I--why could not He have checked me nevertheless, without my prayers--?"

"So say we all, Olav, when we have accomplished our purpose and then seen that it would have been better if we had not."

Fortunate, or blessed, are those who have no similar accomplishments. Elsewhere, in a sentence which I can't locate at the moment and so will quote as best I remember, Olav recalls the wisdom of a priest:

He who follows only his own will discovers in time that he has done that which he did not will.

Among the relatively small group of people who have read both Kristin and Olav, there seems to be a preference for the former. If that's indeed the general view, I dissent. I won't necessarily say that Olav is better, but it's every bit as good. In any case I'm more certain than ever that Undset is among the truly great novelists.

The_Master_of_Hestviken

This seems to be the cover of the original English translation (source: biblio.com). It's the cover of my copy, which somehow came to me from a parish library in Falls Church, Virginia.


The Cosmological Just-So Story

From an anonymous commenter at Neoneocon's blog: 

Multiple universes is the physicist’s version of stacking turtles on the backs of turtles.

See this if you don't get the turtle reference--of course "turtles all the way down" has a Wikipedia entry. And see this for a Wikipedia tour of various multiple universe theories. I've never understood how this could possibly be anything other than speculation, forever beyond the reach of physical investigation.

I think the commenter I'm quoting had in mind the invocation of multiple universes as a way out of the quandaries posed by the "anthropic principle"--the idea that many aspects of the universe as we know it are so finely tuned to support life, and not just physical life but sentient life as well, as to defy probability and raise suspicions of a designer at work. Some people of course do not like that idea at all. 

That's what I have in mind in quoting him, anyway. The Wikipedia article suggests that there are other and more important reasons, arrived at by inference from known physical principles, for hypothesizing that there are multiple universes. That's not something I would presume to have an opinon on, but it does strike me that from the theistic point of view there is no reason why there couldn't be other universes--in whatever sense we might use the word "universe." The Wikipedia article also seems to imply that not all the theorists in this area are using the word in the same way.


"Es ist vollbracht" -- "It is finished" (Bach, St. John Passion)

I know I said I wasn't going to post till Monday, but I've been listening, for the first time, to Bach's St. John Passion, and this aria seems perfect for Holy Saturday, containing both the sorrow and the triumph of the Crucifixion. (Regarding the title of the post: I still prefer the traditional "It is finished" to other English versions of those words.)

Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished !
O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen!
What comfort for all suffering souls!
Die Trauernacht
The night of sorrow
Läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen.
now reaches its final hours.
Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
Und schließt den Kampf.
and brings the strife to an end.
Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished!

(Text and translation from www.bach-cantatas.com), which seems to be one of those wonderful group labors of love that are found on the web. It started in 1999 and the web site still looks that way, but don't let that bother you.)

This performance by Christa Ludwig is not from the Passion I've been listening to, which is a more recent one (i.e. 1986!) conducted by John Eliot Gardiner and more in the favored style of recent years, said to be more authentic. But I saw this one on YouTube and I find it more moving. It's almost a full minute longer than the Gardiner version. 

The St. John is not nearly as well-known as the monumental St. Matthew, but it has many, many virtues which I'm happy to have discovered better late than never. 


A Maronite Mass

(As you probably know, but just in case you don't, the Maronite Church is one of the eastern Christian bodies that are in communion with Rome--see this Wikipedia article for more information.)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend a Maronite Rite Mass. (I suppose "Mass" is not the right term, since it's a specifically Latin one, and in my opinion a somewhat unfortunate one, having less to do with what it names than it might.)  I've long wanted to do that, but as far as I know the only Maronite parish anywhere near me is in Birmingham, four hours at least away from me, and though I drive through Birmingham fairly often it's never at a time when the liturgy is being celebrated. 

There really should be a Maronite parish, or perhaps several, in Mobile, as it's the rite of many (most, I guess) Lebanese Christians and there is a sizable Lebanese community in Mobile, arising from immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (I still haven't quite gotten used to the fact that "the last century" now refers to the 20th, not the 19th as it did for two-thirds of my life.) I've been told that there were some not-very-nice machinations on the part of the local bishop and clergy (Latin of course) to prevent the establishment of a Maronite presence back then, which is a shame, not just because it was not very nice but because it deprived the whole Catholic community, not only the Lebanese, of an important tradition.

If I were more of a liturgy nerd (such a rude term, but it has its use), I would have managed to get to it. As it was, I had to wait until it came to me, at a parish in Mobile, with a visiting celebrant in the person of Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J., whose name you may recognize from his work with EWTN and Ignatius Press. It was impressive, and I think any Latin Rite Catholic who is a little, or maybe more than a little, dissatisfied with the Novus Ordo would find it so, and perhaps be a bit envious. If you search for "Maronite Mass" on YouTube you'll find a number of videos which are the next best thing to attending it. In fact, here is one celebrated by Fr. Pacwa. A certain amount of it is in English but the core is in the ancient language, or languages--some was referred to as Aramaic and some as Syriac. (Personally I find it rather weird and bordering on irreverent to watch a liturgy on video, and so did not watch all of this one.) 

But it was not any particular features of the liturgy that struck me so much as the sense of its antiquity. Parts of it are in Aramaic, and it gave me a bit of a shiver to think that I was hearing the liturgy in the very language that is, if not identical the one that Jesus spoke, then close to it, and certainly far, far closer to it than any modern European language. And afterwards it led me down a line of ecumenically incorrect thought. I mean "ecumenical" in its typical current sense, the "mere Christianity" sort of sense, referring to the attempt to find comity and common ground among Christian communities, including the Protestant ones.

If I were a Protestant, especially if I were an Evangelical, low-church, more or less congregational Protestant, the fact that all the Christian churches that can with any plausibility trace their lineage back to the origin of the faith celebrate a liturgy which is recognizably the same basic thing would give me pause. Anglicanism and its descendants, and I think also Lutheranism, preserve it in greater or lesser degree--I realized, in retrospect, that its faint outline was visible in the Methodism of my youth. But the more radically Protestant churches don't. There is nothing in any of these forms of worship that bears much resemblance to that of, for instance, a Southern Baptist church, still less the newer free-lance non-denominational churches that are more or less of the evangelical stripe and have gone in very much for rock music and stagecraft and such (or so I hear). 

I would think that any Christian who looks into the history of the Church, the one that can actually be seen to have existed, as opposed to the one that is inferred from brief mentions in the New Testament seen through a very Protestant lens, would almost (almost!) necessarily move toward one of the ancient Churches. I don't mean that he would inevitably become a Catholic, as it's entirely possible to believe that Catholicism went fatally astray at some point even though it preserved the basic elements of worship. Maybe he would become a Copt, or join the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. But he would recognize the radically non-liturgical Protestant churches as distinctly modern phenomena (as is Protestantism in general, but that's a whole 'nother matter), severed from Christian history.

I don't say this with any triumphalist intention. It's a tragedy, because there are so many serious committed Christians in those groups. It's a great loss on both sides. 


Dostoevsky's Demons Revisited

As political frenzy revved up over the last year, I found myself wanting to re-read Dostoevsky's Demons, thinking it would offer some insight and perspective on what's happening. Or rather not so much what is currently happening as what has been happening for the past 150 years or so. I had thought on my first reading that I didn't fully grasp it, and hoped it might be clearer on a second reading. As usual I found that it had been longer than I thought since the previous one. I guessed three years or maybe four; it was actually seven.

But looking back at the post I wrote then, I find that it still stands pretty well as a summary of my opinion. So here's a link to it.

What I said then about a great novel being like a symphony that must be heard more than once was certainly proved. I did enjoy the book more this time around, and felt more sure that I understood it. The feeling I described of seeing the people and events as through some kind of fog or smoke was much less pronounced this time, in fact mostly gone. I did, however, again and again find myself thinking of what I had said then, quoting a friend: that many (most?) of Dostoevsky's characters seem "just barely sane." And the funny parts were funnier, especially the meeting of the would-be revolutionaries, which was more or less recognizable to anyone who's ever been around young people full of big ideas about changing the world. And the long rhapsody delivered at the disastrous fete by a windbag character said to have been modeled on Turgenev is flat hilarious.

I also thought of a remark from W.H. Auden which I encountered many years ago in some magazine and no longer remember the context of: that the Russian and American temperaments are more alike than either is like the English. I think that's true. I can't really imagine anyone in Demons transposed directly into an American, but I can easily imagine ones equally crazy in very similar ways.

I read the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, which was the same one I read before. I had thought about reading the old and formerly standard Constance Garnett one, but a bit of comparison suggested that the differences were not as great as, for instance, those between the recent Undset translations and the older ones.

The change of the title from The Possessed is interesting. I assume it's justified as a simple matter of translation, but it raises a question. The novel bears as an epigraph the story from the Gospel of Luke of the Gadarene swine, possessed by demons who cause them to run down a hill into the sea. Clearly the deranged ideas of Dostoesky's characters, and especially their nihilistic and amoral revolutionary fervor, are the analog of the demons in the story, and those who are driven by those ideas are the swine. The translation of the title therefore is significant: is it a reference to the demons or to those possessed by them? See this brief discussion at Wikipedia. Either works, of course. But there's a difference of emphasis, and on that basis alone I'm inclined to think that "demons" is more appropriate. Or, as some other translators have said, "devils."

I had not realized how many (English) translations there are. That Wikipedia page lists seven, two of them since Pevear and Volokhonsky's in 1994. 


Happy New Year

You'll notice that there's no cheery exclamation mark after that title. I bring you this appropriate counsel from St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373):

God has determined the measure of man’s life, and the days divide this appointed measure into parts. Each day imperceptibly takes its part away from your life and each hour unrestrainedly runs along its course with its little share. The days destroy your life, the hours subvert its edifice, and you rush to your end, for you are but a vapor.

The days and hours, like thieves and robbers, rob and steal from you. The thread of your life is gradually torn and shortened. The days deliver your life up to burial, the hours lay it in the grave, and together with the days and the hours does your life on earth disappear.

I hope to make good use of some large part of the days and hours that will make up the coming year. That's as far as I'll go toward a New Year's resolution. And I wish you success in the same endeavor.

This and a good deal more from St. Ephrem was quoted in a weekly email from the editor(s) of Touchstone. You can sign up for it here

 


Peter Hitchens Muses on the Wind

His latest post at The Lamp's blog is a jewel:

What is it about the wind? When I am watching some piece of ancient black-and-white archive film, imprisoned in the time when it was made, a gust of wind will lift a person’s hair or shake the trees in the background, and the whole thing will spring to fierce life. For the moment when the wind blows, it is freed from the past and is happening now. I do not know why. It just is so.

Something similar happens when the wind comes into poetry or prose....

It's not very long, but read it when you're not distracted and are at liberty to take it slowly. As those who have read this blog for a while know, I live on the hurricane coast and am all too well acquainted with truly terrible and dangerous winds. Yet even at times when I've lain in the dark wondering if a tree was going to fall on the house, or the roof come off, I couldn't help feeling, in addition to the fear, a degree of awe bordering on admiration. And I've been close enough to a tornado to hear it, and have seen the damage. Hitchens notes

I was once on a train between Denver, Colorado and Omaha, Nebraska, halted for hours by tornadoes. The small towns through which we crept, when we at last moved, looked as if they had been visited by war.

That's no exaggeration. After one tornado in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1989, I went to help with the cleanup. I saw, among other things, cars that had been picked up and dropped upside down, completely flattening the top, or right-side up, warping the wheels. Not the tires, the solid steel wheels. A wind that can pick up a car and throw it around. 

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A couple of other things worth looking at on the web:

Slant Books is doing some great things. Among their recent offerings is a collection of three plays by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The title play is about a family of Elizabethan recusant Catholics who...well, here's the description:

Shakeshafte imagines an encounter between a young sixteenth century Englishman with a faintly familiar surname and an undercover Jesuit missionary. Two visions of how words change the world collide and converge and slip away again.

You can read an excerpt here. Also, at this link, you can register for a December 28 online book launch for Shakeshafte which will include performance of a scene from the title play and a Q&A with Williams. 

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The Friday Links at the Dappled Things blog usually include some interesting stuff. In this case it's all of them. I haven't watched that video about the hermit yet but I intend to. I wonder where Liechtenstein is. 

Not so sure I want to read the entire piece by the young women who says "Over time, though, I outgrew the conversion narrative as a genre." Yeah, I hear you. I'm pretty sick of the one I wrote. 


Kind Words for Some Unpopular Christians

Very early in my life as an adult Christian I realized that I had to come to terms with the fact that a lot of my fellow Christians were really Not My Sort. More significantly, they held views, or at least expressed them in ways, with which I disagreed significantly. I have in mind a particular incident: it was around 1979, and I had a friend who, like me, had recently joined the Episcopal Church. He mentioned that he had just heard on the radio a hick preacher who denounced homosexuality in terms that to say the least showed no charity or kindness.

My friend was outraged. I remember him saying vehemently "I have nothing whatsoever in common with that guy. Nothing." As far as I can remember I didn't make any reply, but I remember thinking that as unpleasant and just plain wrong as the preacher was in his approach to that particular subject, I almost certainly agreed with him on the basic tenets of the Creed (though he probably disavowed creeds in principle), and even on the fundamental question of the morality of homosexual acts, and that I had to accept the fact that in becoming a Christian I was joining myself to him and others whose company I didn't especially want. I now had more of the most important things in common with him than I did with my non-Christian friends.

The Gospel, unfortunately, is like that. It's the one thing needful, and those who accept it are united to each other in a way that they can't be with non-believers. Often over the years I've found myself defending people whom I find unsympathetic in one way or another, saying "Well, he or she or they are wrong about that, but right about the One Big Thing."

I still feel that way about fundamentalist Protestantism, though, now, forty years later, a majority of Americans are more of my friend's mind than of mine. It is certainly despised by our upper classes. And there are a lot of people out there who grew up in that culture who now despise it and blame it for their problems.

More or less the same goes for those who are sometimes called fundamentalist Catholics, who are zealous in their commitment to orthodoxy and swim hard upstream against the secular culture which is ever more hostile to them. Since the '70s and '80s there have been a fair number of Catholic families in this mold, and now many of their children are grown, and as with the Protestants some (many) are now ex-Catholics who are bitter about various things that were wrong with that subculture. Sometimes it's personal, some particular situation that was really unhealthy. Sometimes it's a general rejection of the whole mindset. Sometimes it's justified, sometimes not.

EWTN is one of the central institutions of these Catholics, and it is much despised by progressive Catholics. Pope Francis even went so far recently as to say the devil is at work in it (which is true enough, just as he's at work in the Vatican). I have to admit, with a twinge of guilt, that I've never really cared much for EWTN. I'll leave it at that, because I don't want to write a thousand words on the subject. Suffice to say that it's really not my cup of tea, and I would agree with some of the criticisms of it. But I have seen it work real good in the lives of real people, and I think it's much more a good thing than not.

So I was glad to read, a week or two ago, two pieces that came out pretty close together, by relatively young people defending these unpopular Christians. One is a Catholic convert writing in National Review. She's an instance of what I was just saying, someone on whom EWTN exercised a significant influence for the good.  The other is a Protestant (Anglican) writing in The American Conservative. I found them heartening, especially the Protestant, because the milieu he describes is the one I grew up in. Here's the Catholic: "In Defense Of EWTN", and here's the Protestant: "I Survived (Because Of) Bible-Belt Religion".

By the way, here is what the pope actually said:

There is, for example, a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope. I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the Church does not deserve them. They are the work of the devil.

This was, all too predictably, reported as "Pope Francis says EWTN is the work of the devil." Obviously the antecedent of "They" in the third sentence is "attacks and insults." I don't know what these attacks and insults are so am not expressing an opinion on whether his complaint is justified.


Another Liturgical Note

"Bishop Steven J. Lopes, the bishop of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, was elected to head the Committee for Divine Worship by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at their annual general assembly in Baltimore."

Full story at the web site of the Anglicanorum Coetibus Society.

My master plan for the Ordinariate is a slow infiltration of the Novus Ordu by the language and other elements of the Anglican tradition. So far so good. I don't really know what this means, and have not seen any commentary. The vote was as close as it could be without being a tie: 121-120. I don't know what that means, either. Does it reflect a more-traditionalist vs. less-traditionalist split? Maybe some of those folks who follow these things closely will provide some insight.

I read somewhere or other a speculation that what Pope Francis is really up to in suppressing the traditional Latin Mass is to drive those who want a more reverent, beautiful, and traditional liturgy to work with the Novus Ordo. I'm inclined to doubt it, but I guess it's possible. Anyway, the Ordinariate's liturgy is just what is needed to get us beyond the post-Vatican-II conflict. On that matter, anyway.


Important News in the Anglican World

I read the other day on an Ordinariate forum that Church of England Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has been received into the Catholic Church. Well, that's nice, I thought, but that was about the extent of my reaction. These crossovers happen now and again and are of course always welcome, but they are few and don't generally have a great deal of larger significance; they don't represent a broad trend. 

But then I actually read one of the posted articles, and found that it's more significant than I thought. I was vaguely aware of Nazir-Ali's name and that he was somehow fairly prominent, but that was all I knew. It turns out that 

...he formed the centre of a nucleus of evangelical resistance to the slippage in the secular progressive accommodation embarked on by the Anglican Church. He was particularly outspoken on the serious consequences of ignoring the implications of the growth of Islam, and the importance of the Christian definition of marriage being restricted to a man and a woman with the intention of having children.

Previous high-profile Episcopal conversions were mainly of Anglo-Catholics. It was almost expected of them. Others shrugged their shoulders and passed them off as almost inevitable and of no great surprise or perhaps even of no great significance.

But Nazir-Ali is different. The route by which he came to prominence, which included holding the post of General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, was evangelical. And of course evangelicalism is usually uncompromisingly hostile to Catholicism.

I recommend that you read the entire article if you're interested. It's in a British publication called Christian Today, which initially and carelessly I thought was our well-known Christianity Today, in which I can't find any reference to this news. One bit in it made me smile:

What this crisis revealed was that Anglicanism lacked an essential tool in the struggle with secular relativism, the Magisterium.

Ya think?!?  I thought that was clear forty years ago; also that Anglicanism had pretty well already lost that struggle and was not likely to find its way back. That was probably the single most important factor in my conversion.

As I've mentioned (haven't I?) my local Ordinariate group is no more, but I'm still interested in its fortunes, which are in general not so promising right now, and cling to the hope that in time it will have a positive effect on the Church as a whole, chiefly through its liturgical and devotional traditions. So I rejoice that Bishop Nazir-Ali was received into the Ordinariate. I hope he doesn't have too bad a time there. 


Why We're Divided (2) + The Lamp

By an appropriate coincidence, on the same day that I did that last post the new issue of The Lamp arrived. It includes an essay of mine which discusses the development of the counter-culture of the 1960s toward the current culture war, and the post reiterates a point made in that piece: 

The essential feature of the youth rebellion of the Sixties is that it arrived at the point at which the simultaneous decline of Christian culture and the rise of secular materialism produced a mass movement which was in fact a new ersatz cultus, the Great Awakening of a religion of human liberation. It has attracted converts ever since and gone a great way toward converting the culture of which it is an antagonist, recapitulating the conversion of the Greek and Roman world to Christianity. It is for many a feverishly impassioned faith. Like the Church it looks with fervent longing for a world to come. If it stops short of explicit utopianism, it nevertheless postulates an “arc of history” which is an asymptotic approach to utopia.

My title for the piece was "What Happened in the 1960s?" The editor(s) changed it to "What The Culture War Really Is," which I didn't quarrel with. ("Ersatz cultus" also is the editor's phrase, not mine--I just said "religion.") 

It was originally a chapter in the book for which I'm currently trying to find a publisher. My initial intention and ambition for the book was that it would be a combination of personal and cultural history, part autobiographical narrative and part discursive reflection and/or analysis of the times. Reactions from the people who read it either suggested or stated outright that I hadn't really unified those two aspects, and I think they were right. And among other things the book was way too long, and so I removed a lot of the discursive impersonal stuff, like the chapter which became the essay on the Sixties.

What's left is basically a memoir, and I think there's an oversupply of memoirs these days, so I'm not very optimistic about getting it published. Yesterday I ran across this rather wonderful quote from Wittgenstein's introduction to one of his own books:

I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.

That's something like the way I feel. I don't think I can rewrite the book as it now stands in such a way that it would be greatly improved, though I have not stopped fiddling with details, and will soon try sending this new version to a publisher. 

Though I had excised that one chapter, I thought it was worth preserving. I cut it down from its original 7,000 or so words (by removing personal stuff) to 4,000. Almost exactly 4,000, in fact, which I know because I aimed for that in order to get it down to the maximum word count for First Things, thinking it might be something that would interest them. Well, it didn't. Nor did it interest several other conservative/Catholic publications to which I submitted it, so I put it on this site for a while. Perhaps you read it. 

Then Robert Gotcher told me about a new Catholic magazine called The Lamp. It looked interesting, and they were (are) considering unsolicited work, so I sent the piece to them, and somewhat to my surprise they accepted it. At that point I took it down here.

The Lamp is an interesting publication, describing itself as "A Catholic Journal Of Literature, Science, The Fine Arts, Etc." It's eclectic to say the least. I'm tempted to add "to a fault," and very handsomely produced. It is, however, a bit pricey at $60 for a print subscription, $45 for digital. You can read their editorial statement here. And here is a list of the issues. I'm pretty sure that you can read them online if you register first. It will offer to link your registration to your subscriber account, but you can close that tab, go back to the issues page, and view the articles. I think.

TheLamp-Issue-07-cover-imageCover image from the current issue. I think it's great.


Why We're Divided

The end of the Cold War three decades ago followed by the terror attacks in 2001 should have ushered in an era of consensus and low-intensity politics in the United States. That was the expectation at the time—but it turned out to be wrong. Over the past few decades Americans have turned on themselves, dividing into hostile tribes and parties with little common ground to hold the national enterprise together. As a result, as many now agree, the United States finds itself more polarized and divided over politics than at any time since the 1850s. But today, in contrast to the slavery issue of the 1850s or the Great Depression of the 1930s, there is no single crisis or line of conflict to account for the situation. We live in a time of general peace and relative prosperity and do not face any single challenge comparable to slavery or mass unemployment. America is coming apart, but no one can quite explain why.

That's James Pierson writing in a recent issue of The New Criterion (you can read the piece here, I think). With all respect to Mr. Pierson, who is far more qualified than I to discuss political and economic history, I believe I can explain why. The details are very many and sometimes contain contradictory and ambiguous evidence, but I think I've grasped the big picture, the essence of the conflict.

You can state the basic nature of the European aspect of World War II in Europe straightforwardly: Germany was an aggressive, repressive, and violent state that set out to conquer others, which then defended themselves. Even as a summary this leaves out a lot, starting with all the reasons why Hitler had come to power in the first place, the various ideas and obsessions that came together in National Socialism, the history of relations between the powers, and so on and so on, eventually for many volumes. But the simple statement is true.

Similarly, the essence of the current conflict can be stated like this: within Euro-American civilization a new religion has appeared, and has gained many powerful adherents who seek to impose it on the entire society, and are resisted by those who have not accepted it.

Obviously that doesn't begin to cover the subject. First of all one might discuss the sense in which "religion" is the right word for this new movement, and whether "pseudo-" or "crypto-" should be prefixed to it. And then one wants, of course, to describe the new religion, to understand it, to consider the ways in which the existing order produced the conditions for it, the ways in which it seeks to achieve its aims, to trace the history of its development and of the conflict between it and the society which gave birth to it.

And so on and so on. But if you don't see that one essential point--that this new movement is for all practical purposes a religion in the sense of providing a meaning and a mission for human life, and that it seeks to impose itself on everyone, you're missing the biggest part of the big picture.

I know I'm far from the only one making this basic point, or a similar one. But many of those who get it seem to me to stop short of what I'm saying. They note that politics has taken on a religious fervor and centrality for many people, and that is certainly true. But I think it's more than that: for the new religion, there is no distinction between religion and politics. Even that is too limiting a way to put it, because it treats religion and politics as separate things, which the new religion does not. Politics is its practice in exactly, not just analogously, the same way that prayer and church attendance are the practice of Christianity.

The fact that the new religion doesn't have a name and doesn't demand an explicit profession of faith makes its religious nature easier to miss, and also makes it easier to embrace. Nor does it see itself as "a religion" among others, but rather as the self-evidently true and good--which means that opposition to it can only constitute a choice of the false and evil. This likewise makes it easier to embrace, and also accounts for its almost perfect moral self-confidence.

The immediately apparent historical analogies are the establishment of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the conquest of much of the Mediterranean world by Islam. I think the latter is really more comparable, for the same reason that I used the words "establishment" and "conquest"--the conversion of the Empire to Christianity was not primarily or initially by force, but the replacement of Christianity by Islam in much of the Mediterranean world was (though there was more to the story than that of course). And although the new religion does not (as yet) use physical force, it does use whatever means of informal and legal compulsion it can.

The course of the actual campaign of this attempted conquest is murky, as is generally the case. Relatively few people are firmly and consciously on one side or the other. Most people are down-to-earth and pragmatic and don't generally think too much about consciously-held abstract principle. Many who casually support it don't really grasp its totalitarian implications, or draw back from its more radical doctrines, such as the denial of sex.

Is this a fire that will burn itself out fairly quickly? Or is it the beginning of a long age of domination by a fundamental falsehood? Is that even possible for any great length of time? I don't know. I take a little comfort in considering how long Hitler's thousand years lasted. And totalitarian communism didn't do all that much better. Unlike fascism, though, communism didn't die. It has too much in common with the new religion (and both have more in common with fascism than they can admit). Many millions of people get misty-eyed when they sing "Imagine," which means they have accepted some of the doctrines of the new faith, whether or not they realize it.


The Search for Extraterrestrial Life

This was mentioned in a weekly Friday Reflection from Touchstone. I had no idea the search had begun so early: 

It began in concept as early as 1896 when Nikola Tesla suggested wireless electrical transmission to contact Martians. In 1899, he thought he had detected a signal from Mars—so he was listening. In 1924, an attempt to listen for Martians from the U. S. Naval Observatory was assisted by Admiral Eberle, chief of Naval Operations: a “National Radio Silence Day” was promoted with radios going silent for five minutes on the hour for 36 hours while a radio receiver in a dirigible floating 1.9 miles up listened for signals.

Personally I am of the opinion that if there are forms of life of a sort with which we could communicate, there is almost no possibility that we will ever know it. Everybody is familiar with the dogma asserted in favor of extraterrestrial life in general: that since there are [very very large number] of stars in the universe, it is so probable as to be all but certain that there will be life of the sort we would recognize as such, and that among those living things there will be some which we would recognize as being like us in having speech and intelligence. 

The proponents of this idea, who usually present it as obvious, and even scientific, don't always mention the materialist and evolutionist axiom that underlies it: that life and consciousness are the products of chance working on matter. If you make that assumption, then it's reasonable to say that given enough stars and enough time, enough planets will form and develop in ways that can support life that enough of these will actually somehow give birth to life, and that enough of these life forms will evolve into intelligent beings that we will probably encounter them. It is all but certain, in this view, that they are out there, and highly probable that they will eventually contact us, or vice versa (or, of course, that this has already happened).  

But if that axiom is not true, the conclusions are in doubt. If chance alone working on a whole heck of a lot of matter is not in fact the explanation for the existence of life and consciousness, then the only reasonable answer to the question "Does intelligent extraterrestrial life exist?" is "We do not know. And moreover we currently have no way of knowing." For my part, I'm firmly, even passionately, agnostic on the question--passionate because the materialist axiom is so little questioned, or even noticed.. 

If materialism as a philosophy is not the correct explanation of the world, then "scientific" pronouncements about extraterrestrial life are only speculation with no solid scientific value. I would argue further that the fact that the materialistic explanation of non-material phenomena such as human consciousness seems more plausible to most people in our time is a mere cultural prejudice. (I don't mean, of course, materialistic explanations for everyday material phenomena. If you're going to study the operations of the physical world, it would be unreasonable not to assume that material effects are produced by material causes. Simple experience and common sense tell us that that is the normal way of things.)

There's another big problem with the whole attempt to detect such life by any means we know. No one seems to believe that any nearby star systems have much potential for supporting life. And if there is life on a system 1,000 light years away, any evidence we receive would only tell us that there was life there 1,000 years ago. And our galaxy is estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000 light years across. We are not likely to have a very interesting relationship with life forms with whom the exchange Hello. How are you?We're fine. How are you? would take multiple thousands of years. 

And travel across those distances? Well, it's easy to say "warp drive" or "hyperspace" or the more currently favored "wormhole," but these are just words that play the role in science fiction that magic plays in folk tales. The Millenium Falcon and a magic carpet are two instances of the same class of thing. I think I'm correct in saying that even the theoretical possibility of faster-than-light travel is vague, and that no technology implementing it can really even be imagined now--imagined as an actual engineering project, I mean. 

Sure, all that could be proven mistaken and irrelevant tomorrow by some utterly unknown and unforeseen scientific breakthrough. But "you can't prove it will never be possible" is not a scientific position. I really don't have an opinion on whether there are other sentient material beings on other planets, but I do think it's unlikely that we'll ever meet them. 

Now, the possibility of an entirely new order of being in which the spaces and distances we know do not limit us in the way that they now do is another matter entirely. But no possible technology can ever get us there.