Friday, April 20, 2018

Unappreciated on Facebook

I posted this on Facebook. I thought it was swell, just swell. It didn't get much of a response. So I'm posting it here, too.

I am still trancribing audio recordings in which students are describing their research methods. When I admitted how much I enjoyed it everyone else on the group willingly let me do theirs, too. Ha!

The main reason I enjoy it is because I enjoy typing. (It's not so odd. Apparently Stephen Fry types pages of other peoples' text for fun.) But also, there's something contemplative about it. I mostly catch the words the first time I listen to them, stopping and starting the recording, but sometimes I have to go back a few seconds. Hearing the same recording over and over's like hearing it for the first time. In a strange way, it starts to seem more real, more compressed, more THERE.

I've had the same experience when looking at a photograph or when drawing something. You SEE the thing almost for the first time, when you linger on it...I also feel this when reading poetry criticism or (sometimes) film criticism, when the critic lingers lovingly over a line or scene.

This is also part of why Groundhog Day is my favourite film. Maybe we WOULD have to live the same day over and over and over to even experience it once, properly.

And perhaps this approaches the state of mind William Blake was describing when he wrote:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

On Catholic In-Fighting

Social media can be useful in at least one way. It tends to reflect your own faults to you, even if it's in a funhouse mirror form.

I've been increasingly taken aback by much of the rhetoric on social media regarding Pope Francis. I'm not an ultramontanist, so I'm far from thinking that criticism of the Supreme Pontiff is illegitimate. And indeed, some of the defences of the Pope (and criticism of his critics) have been just as uncharitable, just as rancourous.

On both sides, there is a great deal of sarcasm, irony, satire, name-calling, flippancy, and so forth-- not charitable or serious discussion.

However, my contacts on social media would tend to be very conservative, and so I've been more exposed to the "anti-Francis" side of the debate.

It really bothers me that there is a contingent who increasingly seem to see themselves as "the resistance" to the Pope. When you've set yourself consciously and continuously in opposition to the Pope, surely you've lost your way.

"Name names", you might demand. Well, I'm not going to. I have no intention of getting into spats or finger-pointing.

Ross Douthat is an example of a Catholic writer whose critique of Francis is respectful and measured. Sadly, there are others who are not respectful or measured.

I'll be very frank. I've found this pontificate extremely challenging, even distressing at times. I'm often baffled by the Pope's words and actions, even while I find some of his pronouncements deeply inspiring (for instance, many passages in his latest apostolic exhortation, Rejoice and Be Glad).

But docility and obedience are virtues to Catholics. I'm struck by this very often in reading the lives of the saints. St. Catherine of Siena's criticism of the Pope is often cited, but it's a rare exception. St. Athanasius of Alexandria, in his war with the Arian bishops, is another. (But let us remember that he was a bishop.) I'm not aware of many other examples.

The saintly figures of Catholic history are much more often distinguished by docility-- to their bishops and religious superiors, never mind the Pope.

Here's an example. Venerable Fulton Sheen is often hailed as an outstanding figure of old-fashioned Catholicism-- assertive, unapologetic, hard-hitting. I was watching one of his videos on YouTube and, reflecting on the fact that he died in 1979, found myself wondering what he'd said about Vatican II.

Venerable Fulton Sheen
This is what he said: "The tensions that developed after the Council are not surprising to those who know the whole history of the Church. It is a historical fact that whenever there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit as in a general council of the Church, there is always an extra show of force by the anti-Spirit or the demonic. Even at the beginning, immediately after Pentecost and the descent of the Spirit upon the apostles, there began a persecution and the murder of Stephen. If a general council did not provoke the spirit of turbulence, one might almost doubt the operation of the third Person of the Trinity over the assembly."

One could hardly get more enthusiastic-- rather too enthusiastic, in my view.

Even with a figure like Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary, we see this. Duff was often frustrated in his efforts by unsympathetic bishops, such as John Charles McQuaid (I admire McQuaid greatly, by the way). But he didn't air his frustrations publicly. (If I'm wrong on this, I'm happy to be corrected.)

Speaking of Vatican II, I'm continually haunted by its assertion of Papal supremacy in Lumen Gentium: "In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking."

There is not much ambiguity there. Certainly it seems to leave little room for many of the critics of our current Pope, whose atttidue seems to be: "Call me when he proclaims a dogma".

I'm also haunted by the fact that Pope Benedict has explicitly said that Pope Francis's pontificate is not in contradiction with his own, and that there is a "continuity" between them. (He also seems to have given moral support to Cardinal Muller and one of the dubia cardinals, so I think Pope Francis's champions should show a similiar respect towards his critics.)

I would cheer wildly if Cardinal Burke or Cardinal Sarah stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter's after the next papal conclave. In fact, I look towards this conclave with considerable apprehension, especially given the number of cardinals Pope Francis has ordained.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, a great man

On the other hand...the Holy Spirit knows better than me. I'm not saying that every papal election is an act of the Holy Spirit, but it might be.

And the promise of our Lord to St. Peter remains operative. No matter how bad things get, we know the Church is not going to apostasize.

I have my opinions on what "bad" is, but who's to say I'm right? Many Catholics would look askance on developments which seem reasonable to me, such as ecumenical outreach. (Which is not to say I approve of everything done in the name of ecumenism.)

What really bothers me is the amount of time Catholics spend fighting each other. In all the time I've spent reading G.K. Chesterton, I've never come across a passage where he criticizes a Catholic bishop or any development within the Catholic Church. (This is especially notable considered he was an ardent supporter of World War One, and the Pope of the time called for peace and negotiation.) I'm not saying there are no such passages, but they must be thin on the ground indeed, since I don't remember ever reading any. Belloc, too, I remember reading, made it a point not to criticise other Catholics.

From now on, I am going to avoid thinking of myself as a conservative Catholic, a JPII Catholic, a Pope Benedict Catholic, an Ordinary Form Catholic, or any other sort of Catholic. I'm just a Catholic. I'm so tired of the Catholic in-fighting. I'm sorry for any part I've played it, or any expressions of rancour or sarcasm towards the Holy Father on this blog in the past.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Forgotten Irishness of C.S. Lewis

The 1993 movie Shadowlands dramatizes the late-in-life romance between two writers, C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. Lewis is by far the most famous of the two. His series of children’s fantasy novels The Chronicles of Narnia has sold over a hundred million copies. Although the movie is excellent from an artistic point of view, it leaves much to be desired in terms of accuracy. Perhaps the biggest inaccuracy is the depiction of C.S. Lewis, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, as a quintessential Englishman, a very formal and introverted Oxford don. In reality, Lewis was a hearty character with a booming laugh, frequently described as resembling a farmer more than a professor. And, so far from being the quintessential Englishman, he was Irish—born and bred!

C.S. Lewis
The fact that Lewis was Irish is frequently overlooked. On the many posters and calendars which celebrate Ireland’s literary tradition, we will look in vain for Lewis’s rather beefy face. His name does not roll off the tongue when Irish literary luminaries such as Yeats, Shaw, Wilde and Joyce are listed. In the book C.S. Lewis: At Home in Ireland, David Bleakly complains: “The massive Dictionary of Irish Literature (Aldwych Press, London) manages to engage in a detailed study of Irish writers without marking Lewis out for special mention…all he receives is a tiny footnote on two occasions, and then only in reference to the work of others”.

It seems a shame that Ireland should overlook such a literary and intellectual giant. Clive Staples Lewis (known to his friends as Jack) was the son of a Belfast solicitor who won a scholarship to Oxford and eventually became a Fellow in English literature there. After twenty-nine years in Oxford, he finished his academic career in Cambridge University. He fought in the First World War, where he was wounded and sent home. Having lost his Christian faith in his youth, he regained it at the age of thirty-three, and went on to become a noted Christian writer. His fame for this began during World War Two, when he made a series of radio broadcasts arguing the truth of the Christian faith. They were enormously popular.

As mentioned already, his series of seven children’s novels, The Chronicles of Narnia, have sold over a hundred million copies. In these books, a group of children find themselves transported to the magical world of Narnia. As well as being entertaining yarns, they serve as Christian allegory, in which Jesus is represented as a talking lion called Aslan. Three of the books have been adopted to blockbuster movies.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Although the Narnia stories have made Lewis famous as a fantasy writer, relatively few people realize that he played a crucial role in the creation of an even more famous fantasy series, The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien, the writer of that most popular of fantasies, was a friend and colleague of Lewis long before either of them became famous. Tolkien was frank about his debt: “He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion.” Along with all this, Lewis has a high reputation as a literary critic and a writer of science fiction.

Lewis, then, is a colossal figure of twentieth century literature. One would expect him to be included in any roll-call of Irish literary greats. So why isn’t he?

Partly it’s because his books have such an English flavour. The children who find themselves in Narnia are all very English children, and use English slang such as “you’re a brick” and “Great Scott!”. His stories are generally set in England or some fantasy world.

Another reason Lewis is often considered British is because he was born into the Unionist tradition in Belfast. Not that Lewis ever showed much partisanship on ‘the Irish question’. As his biographer Alister McGrath tells us: “According to Lewis's diary entry for the critical date of 6 December 1922 [the foundation of the Irish Free State], the big question on his mind was not Irish independence, nor the political future of Belfast, but whether the word breakfast was to be understood as "a cup of tea at eight or a roast of beef at eleven". He hated politics all his life, and this seemed to stem from the sectarian politics he encountered in his childhood.

For all his Unionist background, Lewis undoubtedly thought of himself as an Irishman. This is most evident in his description of his arrival in England to attend boarding school, as a boy: “No Englishman will be able to understand my first impressions of England… I found myself in a world to which I reacted with immediate hatred. The flats of Lancashire in the early morning are in reality a dismal sight; to me they were like the banks of Styx. The strange English accents with which I was surrounded seemed like the voices of demons… I have made up the quarrel since; but at that moment I conceived a hatred for England which took many years to heal.”

Mourne mountains

Nor did Lewis’s sense of Irishness fade over time. As McGrath writes: “Lewis returned to Ireland for his annual vacation almost every year of his life, except when prevented by war or illness. He invariably visited the counties of Antrim, Derry, Down (his favourite), and Donegal-- all within the province of Ulster, in its classic sense. At one point, Lewis even considered permanently renting a cottage in Cloghy, County Down, as the base for his annual walking holidays, which often included strenuous hikes in the Mountains of Mourne. Although Lewis worked in England, his heart was firmly fixed in the northern countries of Ireland, especially County Down. As he once remarked to his Irish student David Bleakley, "Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of County Down."

In his letters, Lewis used expression such as “it beats Banagher”, “a holy terror”, and “good crack”. And once, when he was rehearsing a radio broadcast and the producer complained about his heavy breathing, he quipped: “I'm Irish, not English. Did you ever know an Irishman who didn't puff and blow?’

So surely it is time to give C.S. Lewis his place amongst Ireland’s literary greats!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Review of By Man Shall his Blood Be Shed by Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette (Part I)

By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defence of Capital Punishment
Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette
Ignatius Press

For most of my life, I was a confirmed opponent of the death penalty. At first, this was for humanitarian motives-- put simply, the idea of taking somebody's life was so horrible that it seemed unconsionable to me, outside of a "kill or be killed" situation. When I became a convinced Catholic, the immense admiration I felt (and still feel) for St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both outspoken opponents of the death penalty, also influenced me. And, of course, the current Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that, in modern conditions, the cases in which the death penalty can be legitimately used are "very rare, if not practically non-existent." It seemed like an open or shut case.

Then I read Catholic philosopher Edward Feser's defence of capital punishment, both on his blog and in this book co-authored with criminologist Joseph Bessette, and now I'm less sure. I can't say that I have been entirely convinced, but it seems to me that Feser and Bessette have made a case which cannot be lightly dismissed.

If Edward Feser says something, I take it seriously. His book The Last Superstition was instrumental in convincing me of the existence of God. Since then, I've been an avid reader of his blog. There's something inexorable about Feser's logic-- patiently and calmly, he develops his own argument and dismantles that of his opponents, pre-empting objections and giving those objections a very fair hearing. This book is written in the same style. All the usual arguments against the death penalty, as well as some unusual ones, are addressed.

Edward Feser
 Of course, this is a Catholic defence of the death penalty, so it it is mostly arguing from a Catholic point of view. The authors, in fact, make two distinct arguments. The first is that the legitimacy of the death penalty is irreformable Church teaching. So, while a Catholic might oppose the death penalty in practice, he or she can't claim that it is wrong in principle. In the second half of the book, Feser and Bessette go further and argue that the death penalty should, in fact, be applied in some cases.

It seems to me that the first part of Feser and Bessette's case is close to being a slam-dunk. In fact, the only reason I hesitate to acclaim it as such is that Pope Francis has suggested the death penalty "is itself contrary to the Gospel", and that the Catechism should be changed to reflect this.

I hope this doesn't happen. In my view, such a change would be a very disturbing reversal of Church teaching. Even if the centuries-old teaching on the death penalty is not irreformable, the Church undermines its own credibility when it makes such dramatic changes. As Feser put it, in an article in The Catholic Herald: "If the Church has been that wrong for that long about something that serious, why should we trust anything else she teaches? And if all previous popes have been so badly mistaken about something so important, why should we think Pope Francis is right?"

When it comes to the second stage of the book's argument-- the defence of the death penalty in practice-- Feser and Bessette's case is still powerful, but not quite as compelling. They question the common claim that the death penalty is not a deterrent, but the data on this topic seems ambigious at best. They address the argument from possible miscarriages of justice, but I do not feel they have entirely disposed of it. Finally there is the question of repentance and the time available for the criminal to repent. Feser and Bessette argue, with St. Thomas Aquinas, that a criminal facing imminent execution is more likely to repent than is a criminal left to live out the rest of his days. That may be true, but shouldn't every opportunity of repentance be given to an imperilled soul? As long as the likelihood is not zero, is it not a terrible thing to remove it, perhaps sending somebody to eternal damnation?

The book begins with a vivid description of capital punishment in the Papal States during the tenure of Giovanni Battista, the Pope's official executioner from 1796 to 1865, who executed 516 criminals:

On the morning of the execution, the Pope would say a special prayer for the condemned. A priest would hear Bugatti's confession and administer Holy Communion to him in advance of the event. In the hours before the execution, a special order of monks would cater to the spiritual needs of the criminal, urging confession and repentance while there was still time and offering the sacraments. They would then lead him to the site of execution in a solemn procession. Notices in local churches would request that the faithful pray for his soul. As the sentence was carried out, the monks would hold the crucifix up to the condemned, so it would be the last thing he ever saw. Everything was done to ensure both that the criminal received his just deserts and that the salvation of his soul might be secured.

It might be said that this final sentence contains Feser and Bessette's thesis in a nutshell. They argue that punishment is indeed a matter of just deserts, and not simply a matter of public safety, deterrence, or reform of the criminal. Similarly, they see the question of capital punishment in the light of eternal life, not simply life on earth.

I will pass over Feser and Bessette's arguments from Scripture, for the simple reason that Catholics interpret Scripture through the lens of Tradition. Opponents of the death penalty often cite the Sermon on the Mount, and Christ's injunction to his followers to turn the other cheek rather than demanding the "lex talionis" principle of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". However, as the authors insist: "Christ is not directly addressing questions of government and criminal justice in this passage in the first place, but is speaking of the attitude that the individual Christian ought to take towards the injustice he suffers. And that is how the passage has traditionally been understood by Catholic theologians."

It is more fruitful to examine that Tradition itself. Feser and Bessette quote a great many passages from Fathers of the Church, Popes, and Catechisms, right up to Pope Pius XII, in favour of the death penalty.

St. Robert Bellarmine
For instance, they quote the great Counter-Reformation scholar St. Robert Bellarmine:

It is lawful for a Christian magistrate to death disturbers of the public peace. It is proved, first, from the Scriptures, for in law of nature, of Moses, of the Gospels, we have precepts and examples of this. For God says, "Whosoever shall shed man's blood, his blood shall be shed."

They also quote St. Augustine, Origen, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Optatus, Pope St. Innocent I (fifth century), Pope St. Innocent III (thirteenth century), Pope Leo X (sixteenth century), and-- most formidably perhaps-- the Roman Catechism, the Catechism produced the codify the Catholic Faith after the Council of Trent:

Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment, which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment­ is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence.

In a 1952 address, Pope Piux XII defended the death penalty in these terms:

Even when it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the state does not dispose of the individual's right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of [ the enjoyment of] life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live.

Obviously, this is a formidable list of authorities. Whether or not Church teaching on the legitimacy of the death penalty is irreformable, it would certainly seem to have been emphatic, right up to the twentieth century.

In the second part of this review, I will examine Feser and Bessette's arguments that punishment (according to traditional Catholic teaching), is primarily retributive, rather than simply being a matter of deterrence or public safety, and their further argument that the principle of proportionality requires the death penalty for the most heinous homicides. I will also address the author's presentation of empirical data regarding the death penalty in America, which (they claim) supports the case for retaining capital punishment in practice.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

My Five Favourite Chesterton Quotations

G.K. Chesterton is an eminently quotable writer. He's so quotable that some of his most famous quotations are things he never said. The most notorious example is "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything". This is very similar to several things Chesterton did write, and it's certainly something he might have said. But it's somewhat bizarre that, out of the millions of words that Chesterton did write, his most quoted line should be something he didn't.

On the other hand, Chesterton often loosely quoted from other authors, so I can't imagine this fact would bother him too much.

But what about the quotations which are bona fide Chesterton? There are tons of them, and one often finds them cropping up in the most unlikely places.

Although Chesterton was a voluminous writer in terms of his overall output, he was concise in another sense-- his books are usually quite short, and his writing tends towards compression. In a nuthshell....he was very good at putting things in a nutshell. It's no wonder people remember his aphorisms, and draw on them at need.

Here are the five quotations I find myself turning to again.

The first comes from Chesterton's very first book of published prose, The Defendant. Chesterton's style is mature and recognisable from the start. In the introduction the book, he describes a phenomenon which he would spend his entire life fighting against. It's a phenomenon which I see everywhere, both in the world around me and within my own soul, and which is perpetually draining life of everything good:

There runs a strange law through the length of human history—that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility.

This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall. It is a strange thing that many truly spiritual men, such as General Gordon, have actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location of the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed.

This tendency is everywhere. I see it most of all, myself, in the widespread disdain for the ordinary, the mundane, and the familiar. I've never understood why ordinary life is considered so dull that we have to spend our lives watching movies about mob bosses and 

My second quotation is from one of Chesterton's many published work on Charles Dickens. It's a much shorter passage, and its appeal is harder to explain:

But Dickens in his cheapest cockney utilitarianism was not only English, but unconsciously historic. Upon him descended the real tradition of "Merry England," and not upon the pallid mediævalists who thought they were reviving it. The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day. Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle Ages. He was much more mediæval in his attacks on mediævalism than they were in their defences of it. It was he who had the things of Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England.

That last sentence is the purest poetry, shot through with Chesterton's distinctive sense of gusto and romance. "All the white roads of England" is an impossibly romantic phrase.

My third selection is from What's Wrong with the World, a book in which Chesterton sets forth his vision of a healthy social order. While discussing the concept of marriage and monogramy

The principle is this: that in everything worth having, even in every pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure. The joy of battle comes after the first fear of death; the joy of reading Virgil comes after the bore of learning him; the glow of the sea-bather comes after the icy shock of the sea bath; and the success of the marriage comes after the failure of the honeymoon. All human vows, laws, and contracts are so many ways of surviving with success this breaking point, this instant of potential surrender. In everything on this earth that is worth doing, there is a stage when no one would do it, except for necessity or honor. It is then that the Institution upholds a man and helps him on to the firmer ground ahead

I've observed the truth of this theory over and over again. I think it's the tendency at the heart of progressivism. It's the ennui which constantly craves newness, without realizing that constant novelty only deepens ennui. Chesterton's mention of pleasure is a big part of why I love this quotation so much. In fact, this tendency seems especially active in pleasures; there's a strange discipline required even to enjoy something, even your favourite things.

My fourth favourite Chesterton quotation is from his masterpiece of apologetics, Orthodoxy, and I think it identifies a universal law of human happiness:

The thing I do not propose to prove, the thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always seems to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking. If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing. But nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.

It's extraordinary how these two yearnings seem to run through all human history. In our era, we have "something that is strange" in abundance, since technology and institutions and culture changes around us at a dizzying pace. But do we have "something that is secure"? I'm rather frightened we don't.

(Incidentally, I think this formula explains the appeal of Star Trek. The Enterprise is "boldly going where no man has gone before", but within the hull of the ship there is an extraordinarily stable and tight-knit community.)

So what's my single favourite Chesterton quotation? Well, I've quoted it only a couple of blog posts ago, but it's always worth quoting again. It's Chesterton's meditation upon the Nativity from The Everlasting Man.

This passage seems to X-ray my inner soul, especially this line: "It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within." All my life I've been fascinated by the idea of the inner chamber, the hidden room, the secret panel. The Secret Garden was one of my favourite books as a child, and the moment when Lucy walks through the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is another example. All in all, I think this passage evokes the particularity of Christianity, the thing that distinguishes it from every other religion and philosophy, as well as any other:

It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over some-thing more human than humanity.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

A Review of My Book!

Here is a review of Inspirations from the Saints from the website of my friend Roger Buck!

As Roger says, we became friends through each others' writing. Indeed, the reason I sent my manuscript to Angelico Press in the first place (or had even heard of them) was because I knew they published Roger's books, The Gentle Traditionalist and Cor Jesu Sacratassimum. I can heartily recommend both-- indeed, Cor Jesu is one those books I will sometimes pluck from the shelf and dip into while I'm eating breakfast or having a cup of tea. It's a nice thick grab-bag of a book...

Also check out his video channel. I've linked to the video on his conversion story, which I especially liked.

Roger is a Traditionalist. I'm not a Traditionalist. We've had some very interesting discussions on the liturgy, the Anglosphere, and some other topics. On everything that matters the most, however, we are in ardent agreement, and I'm very happy he liked my book!

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Whole Beauty Business

Since I will readily admit to being a contrarian (which I am), people sometimes accuse me of contrarianism when I'm entirely innocent of the charge. Or perhaps I should say: sometimes I'm accused of contrarianism when I'm entirely unconscious of any contrarianism on my part. If it's there at all, it's at a subconscious or pre-conscious level.

For instance, I dislike silence, and I become rather impatient at all the "puffing" of silence so prevalent in our society. I'm perfectly willing to admit that I'm in the wrong here, and that everybody else is in the right. I'm sure silence is a good thing. I'm sure the modern world, more than ever, needs silence.

But I just don't like it. To say "plenty of silence in a graveyard" is a glib reduction ab absurdum, and yet this represents my instinctive response.

Give me life! My favourite noise in the whole world is the hum of voices on the air. I would choose that over silence any old day (to use an expression I love).

Perhaps this comes from growing up in a cramped apartment which was always full of people. Of course, I could just as well have reacted against that environment, so I'm not sure if that really does explain it.

Another explanation I might give is that I'm intensely contemplative by nature. I might be flattering myself, of course, but I'm inclined to think this is true. I don't really understand what people mean when they talk about needing silence or "alone time" to "think". They nearly always mean "think" in a specific sense; reflect, contemplate, meditate, etc. This seems to be the "setting" I'm on permanently, though. At least, deliberate contemplation never seems to help me "think" in this way. I've often referred to my purple notebook of memories and thoughts, which are of enduring significance to me. The "inspirations" in this purple notebook always come out of the blue-- indeed, I usually only "pick up on them" in retrospect. For instance, I realize that a particular memory or image keeps coming into my mind, and that it carries a strong emotional charge with it.

So much for silence. Another thing I don't really "get" is all the beauty that is associated with the Catholic tradition. It doesn't really mean anything to me.

This does nothing for me.
Whenever I tell people I don't like cathedrals, they seem to think I am being a contrarian. But I'm really not. Cathedrals leave me cold, for the most part. In fact, they seem so overwrought and fussy and heavy that even looking at them makes me feel tired. (When it comes to architecture, my ideal of beauty is a simple garden shed.)

There are some exceptions to this. I have fond memories of Westminster Cathedral in London, the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Richmond, Virginia, and the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. But in every case, this is due to happy memories associated with them.

The same is true of the liturgy. Beautiful liturgies don't really move me very much. I like the liturgy to be simple and dignified. I would always rather have no choir than the best choir in the world.

The most moving Mass I ever attended was during my pre-marriage course, and took place in a hotel conference room at seven a.m. I loved the simplicity and austerity of the thing. My wife-to-be sang at it, so there was music, but the most simple music there could have been.

My favourite churches are the sort of simple, box-like, brick structures one is likely to come across in Dublin suburbs.

This does it for me!
Saying that beauty leaves me cold in matters of worship is actually understating the case. For me-- and I'm only talking about my own response here-- beauty can actually get in the way of worship. I realize that, for many other people, beauty leads them to God. Perhaps their disposition is healthier than mine.

All I can say is that part of the pleasure I take in a humble little suburban church is that it is humble, that nobody would ever linger in it for purely aesthetic reasons.

I have considerable sympathy with the following passage from C.S. Lewis, which appears in an essay entitled "Christianity and Culture". Lewis has just been discussing some Christian literary critics who seemed to consider bad literary taste as a spiritual fault:

…I felt that some readers might easily get the notion that ‘sensitivity’ or good taste were among the notes of the true Church, or that coarse, unimaginative people were less likely to be saved than refined and poetic people. In the heat of the moment I rushed to the opposite extreme. I felt, with some spiritual pride, that I had been saved in the nick of time from being ‘sensitive’. The ‘sentimentality and cheapness’ of much Christian hymnody had been a strong point in my own resistance to conversion. Now I felt almost thankful for the bad hymns. It was good that we should have to lay down our precious refinement at the very doorstep of the church; good that we should be cured at the outset of our inveterate confusion between psyche and pneuma, nature and supernature.

"He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." (Isaiah 53:2).

I suppose it could be the case that I simply have very poor architectural, artistic, musical, and liturgical taste. After all, when it comes to poetry, I find that a poem such as Robert Southwell's "Burning Babe", which I consider to be an excellent poem in its own right, kindles my feelings of devotion and my awe towards the sacred.

And yet, I'm just as capable of enjoying "humble" hymns. The Taizé hymn "Jesus Remember Me", which is simply the words: "Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom" repeated over and over again,  is utterly haunting in my opinion. Or there is the folksy hymn "Walk in the Light of God", which was sung in my parish this Easter: 

Let's all join together in Communion sweet,
Walk, walk, in the light.
And love one another 'til the Saviour we meet,
Walk, walk, in the light.

Walk in the light, walk in the light,
Walk in the light, walk in the light of the Lord.

Not great poetry by any means. But I find its simplicity and even clumsiness very endearing.

In this blog post, I've been talking about Beauty with a capital "b", the sort of beauty appreciated by connoisseurs (or self-proclaimed connoisseurs). But in a more fundamental sense, I suppose we all inevitably seek out beauty in one form or other. When I talk about my love of garden sheds or Taizé hymns or simple liturgy, that too is an aesthetic response. However, it's a very subjective response, whereas the beauty of a cathedral or Mozart's Requiem is obviously more objective.

There is a sense in which beauty is extremely important to my faith-- that is, on the plane of ideas, of doctrine, of Christianity's "atmosphere". For instance, the first sentence of the gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God". Those words fill me with a sort of ecstasy.

Another example is this famous passage from Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, which I'll use to finish the post. (This might be my favourite passage of prose, bar none.) However, I would argue that the beauty of this passage is not so much in Chesterton's lyricism itself, as it is in the fact that he is making explicit the inchoate poetry of every Christmas crib ("the pathos of small objects and the blind pieties of the poor"):

The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man.... It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over some-thing more human than humanity.

Friday, March 30, 2018

A Good Friday Thought from St. Alphonsus Liguori

He that lives for himself directs all his desires, fears, and pains, and places all his happiness in himself. But he that lives to Jesus Christ places all his desires in loving and pleasing him ; all his joys in gratifying him ; all his fears are that he should displease him. He is only afflicted when he sees Jesus despised, and he only rejoices in seeing him loved by others. This it is to live to Jesus Christ, and this he justly claims from us all. To gain this he has bestowed all the pains which he suffered for love of us.

Have a Blessed Triduum

I wish a blessed Triduum to all my readers!

This morning, I have been watching this excellent meditation on Good Friday by Venerable Fulton Sheen. Very good so far!

I hope these holy days are an outpouring of grace to you all. Pray for me, I will pray for you.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Knowledge in the Air

Hydraulic science over here
And Nietzsche over there.
Month after month, and year on year;
There's knowledge in the air.

They sit by their computer screens
Lost in a dreamy stare
Ringed in by books and magazines;
There's knowledge in the air.

Matisse and Einstein, Burke and Klee,
Vivaldi and Voltaire
Dance round the desks invisibly;
There's knowledge in the air.

Oh happy playground for the mind!
Oh scene without compare!
Let scholarship be unconfined!
There's knowledge in the air!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Look Inside!

You can now "look inside" my book Inspiration from the Saints, on Amazon! I've always loved that feature.

Link here.

If anyone buys and reads the book, it would be great if you could post an Amazon review. Please do be honest, I think honest reviews are the most helpful for everybody.

Someone on Twitter said that the "losers" chapter had given him hope and inspiration. That meant a lot to me!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Some Purple Notebook Moments

It's a very warm and sunny day in Dublin, like a day at the height of summer. It's reminded me of some "purple notebook moments".

Anyone who isn't familiar with my purple notebook can read about it here.

The introduction to my saints book (which you can buy here!)  is pretty much based around a purple notebook moment. I'm not sure if my purple notebook is pure navel-gazing, or whether it might have some public value. Jung's Red Book has public value, it would seem. Why should not my purple notebook? (I'm not suggesting it has public value in itself, but perhaps its entries can serve as inspirations for me to produce works of public value.)

The first purple notebook moment I'm put in mind of is a hot summer's day on my aunt's farm in Limerick. Me, my brother, and my mother were sitting outside on the grass, reading. My mother was sitting on a chair and me and my brother were sitting on a rug. This was a complete novelty to me, since we lived in an apartment, and the idea of sitting on the grass in Ballymun was ludicrous-- you'd be likely to attract unwanted attention and derision, if not a kicking.

I've always been much more a winter man than a summer man. I like the cold and I dislike the heat. Summer (in my view) exists to be the counterweight of winter. But that alone makes it very important.

I was at a funeral recently. (I attended the wrong cremation, but that's another story. And it wasn't just me, but me and three of my friends.) The reading from Ecclesiastes was chosen, as it almost invariably is now: "Unto everything there is a season..."

I think this must be one of the most powerful flights of lyricism ever written. The idea of seasonality is, in itself, inherently poetic. Take these lines from Lewis Carroll, which come from a humorous poem but which I've always considered to be drenched with pathos:

In winter, when the fields are white,
I sing this song for your delight -

In spring, when woods are getting green,
I'll try and tell you what I mean.

In summer, when the days are long,
Perhaps you'll understand the song:

In autumn, when the leaves are brown,
Take pen and ink, and write it down.

Summer has always seemed a bittersweet concept to me-- or rather, a concept tinged with melancholy. A picture taken on a bright summer's day is almost impossible to look at except through a layer of wistfulness. "Summer's lease hath all too short a date", indeed. I am reminded once gain of Burke's description of the life of man, sundered from tradition, as "little more than the flies of summer".

And yet, lurking within this sad transience, there is another idea-- the idea of a never-ending summer, an eternal summer. A photograph taken on a summer's day partakes of this atmosphere, since the picture itself is timeless, a framed eternity of its own. And, even without being captured in a photograph, a memory of a summer's day is just the same. It's timeless...sort of.

The idea of eternity, also, is the idea of a summer's day without end. I think we are all drawn to this idea, in one way or another. We are all trying to hit the jackpot, in one way or another. We are all looking for the gift that never stops giving, whether that is a life-long romantic love, the creation of an imperishable work of art, or undying devotion to some cause. An endless summer's day...that is the dream. Even for people who prefer winter, summer seems to serve this metaphor (even if it's an unconscious metaphor) better. It's the anticipation we all remember from the beginning of the school holidays, captured perfectly in the French phrase "les grandes vacances".

Have you ever noticed that coming-of-age stories are nearly always set in summer?

Well, to return to myself and my brother and my mother, sitting on the grass. I remember the moment so well because I was so aware of it as a moment-- the sun seemed to be performing a role, creating a vignette for our sake. I felt as though it was engraved on a medallion.

The second vignette is from the summer after I left secondary school. I thought I had messed up my school-leaving exams, and that I wouldn't be going to college. I heard an interview on the radio in which a composer of some sort was talking about his life story, the development of his musical taste. The conversation turned to some particular composer, and the interviewee said: "I became a big fan of him in college...well, everybody becomes a big fan of him in college..."

I felt a sense of desolation at that moment, because I was worried I'd missed out on the whole college experience-- which, romantically, I saw as an intellectual odyssey. Of course, when I went to college, I was thoroughly disillusioned in this regard, but it's still a pleasant idyll....doubtless it is true for some people...

This particular memory, however, lingers pleasantly in my mind, long after that sense of desolation became irrelevant. (This is a fairly common phenomenon when it comes to purple notebook moments.) It pleased me immensely to think of a course that people's musical education usually takes-- that there are particular composers which appeal to music lovers at particular moments of their lives, or at particular ages. The same applies to lovers of books, philosophy, or any other subject. Somehow, this idea greatly assuaged my existential loneliness, my fear that life was simply an empty space, a random flux, with no particular up or down, left or right, in our out.

This is why I take tremendous pleasure, always (or nearly always), in listening to enthusiasts of a particular art-form, or writer, or field of interest, talking to each other. It is the furthest thing from the awkward small-talk prevalent in so much of everyday life. Everything they say to each other drips with significance. They recognize each other's experiences-- often, even the mention of a particular name or incident will make them break out into a sudden and shared smile.

The final summer memory is one of the oldest items in my purple notebook-- I think it's a memory, but I can't remember it exactly. I have the image of a yellowed sheet from a newspaper (yellowed, but not very old), which I think was lying at the bottom of a drawer, being used as lining. It featured a photo of a glamorous woman wearing a bikini, perhaps on a beach, beneath the headline: "Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer."

I had never heard this phrase before. I thought it was the most poetic phrase ever, and it set my imagination on fire.

I tried to write an essay on this image many years ago-- in fact, when I was still in college. So that's at least eighteen year ago. I never finished the essay, and even now, I'm not sure I can convey this image's significance to you.

And also...I'm all written out. But I suspect what I have written already goes a long way to explaining why that moment made my purple notebook.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

On the Question of Colour

No, nothing to do with race. I'm simply wondering about colour schemes for this blog.

Around St. Patrick's Day, I usually turn the blog background green. Changing it back this year, I decided to try out grey rather than the usual light blue.

What's most restful and appealing to the eye? What do you think?

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Strange Place

Hello! Hello! Hello! Is anybodythere? Hello? Helloooooooo--


Hello! Who's there? Where are you?

I am the Ghost of the Recent Past. And that is where you are now.

The Recent Past? What is that, exactly?

Hey, we don't like that word here!

What word?


Why don't you like the word exactly? And where are you?

I'm everywhere around you. And as for the word "exactly", it doesn't really apply here.

Why not?

Because nobody can say where this place begins or ends, or how far it extends.

Hmmm. May I sit down? Does this vending machine work?

Go ahead. And yes, it does.

No Wispas?


OK....but, hey, hot coffee! I never know what to expect in this place. Newspapers become blurry when I try to read them, after the first few pages. Clocks jump back and forward when you're not looking at them. And everything is....

Pale? Faint? Plastic-looking?

I don't know how to describe it. Like a school during the summer holidays, maybe.

Ah, I know what you mean. People also say, "Like toys that children have left on the floor", "Like the kitchen the morning after a party", "Like an abandoned movie set"--

I get it.

Well, that is simply the atmosphere of the Recent Past. The Distant Past is filled with a golden glow, and the Medium Past is misty like a sauna. But the Recent Past is just... solid.

And where is everybody?

People don't come here much. Why would they? It has no sentimental value yet, and it has little practical relevance anymore. It's not the present, and it's barely the past.

I've seen a few people, at the end of a corridor, or framed in a window, but...

When you go to meet them, they're gone.

That's it.

Well, people don't linger in The Recent Past. At least, most people don't. You've already outstayed eighty-three per cent of visitors.

Is that right? Well, I've always been a bit of an oddball.

So I guessed. 

Hey, look, a promo for Lord of the Rings on this wrapper!

When is the last time you watched the Lord of the Rings movies?

I was going to watch one the other day except I thought...

Too soon?

Yes! I watched them over and over back when they came out. I watched the first few scenes the other day and I thought...well, I don't need to revisit these for a few more years.

That's this place all over, my friend. Nothing is fresh here. Everything is played out.

But surely some people still watch those movies?

Then those people wouldn't encounter them here. I told you, this place has no definite boundaries. It's different for everybody.

Right. The coffee tastes fine, though.

Well, coffee is coffee, isn't it?

That's true. But if I was a foodie and I wanted the latest foodie craze, I'd be out of luck..?

Now you're getting the hang of it.

I like it here, though.

Aha! I thought so. And why do you like it?

It's kind of peaceful.

Why do you say that?

Well, it has neither the stress of the present moment, nor the...

The what?

Oh, I don't know. The hype of the past. The battle for history. The raw emotions. 

Indeed! These are the fallow years, my friend. This is the sleep of time, the dormant period of memory.

You're a bit of a Rod Serling type, aren't you?

It makes the job more fun.

Hey, look over there! That looks like my friend Jim.

It is your friend Jim. At least, it's Jim. But is he your friend...?

I don't know. We've drifted apart in the last few years. I'm never sure whether to get back in touch with him, or...

Let him drift away for good?

Yes. I suppose this place is full of people in that category.

It is. But you can ignore them if you want. You know, I get the impression you're going to be a regular visitor here.

 Me too!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

"The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live. With the tidings that make such an Ireland possible, St. Patrick came to our ancestors fifteen hundred years ago promising happiness here no less than happiness hereafter. It was the pursuit of such an Ireland that later made our country worthy to be called the island of saints and scholars."

Eamon De Valera, St. Patrick's Day broadcast, 1943