Irish Papist

Irish Papist

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Spark Has Gone Out Of Our Blog Life

Reader, I appreciate you trying, but I think we have to admit it's in the doldrums. It's like we don't have anything to say to each other anymore. I can't believe I'm saying this but....maybe you should read other blogs. Only for a little while! I just need to get into a better place mentally, and creatively, and existentially, and mythopoetically. It's not you, it's me. I think I might have seasonal affective disorder.

So I'm off on a late summer holiday. Talk to you some time in the Autumn! Unless I have something burning to say in the interim. I'm sure I'll come back with all the voluminous verbiage, pompous pontificating, soaring speculation, winsome witticisms, versatile versifying, and oblique observations that we both seem to enjoy. Ciao!!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Spam, spam, spam

Every single day I get copious amounts of it. For some reason, it tends to concentrate itself upon certain posts. Spam messages, also for some unguessable reason, seem to have an obsession with the word 'fastidious', which they use in the least appropriate contexts.

I can't help being amused by some of the messages, which often run something like this:

Wonderful blog post. You how an appreciation of the arguments that is rare in the blogosphere. The depth of research you did for this article must have been fastidious. Keep up the good work!

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I can't help finding this kind of abrupt change of subject a little jarring, no matter how often I read it.

Anyway, it's surprisingy wearing, over a long period of time.

Jeff Culbreath on Reverence and Irreverence

"It is impossible to be irreverent when the world no longer believes in reverence. It is impossible to tell an “edgy” joke when the edge has moved before you finish telling it. It is impossible push the envelope when there are no boundaries that envelop. Our entertainment and humor is degenerating fast because there is no stable context for it. In fact, today’s humor is often forced to establish a context – usually a caricature consisting of a “repressed”, conservative, religious milieu that most people have never experienced – for some protagonist to violate. Increasingly, however, Political Correctness has taken the place of Christianity, and some of the new comedians apply their irreverence to PC dogma, although it changes so fast it’s hard to keep up with, forcing the violators to anticipate the next move and push the envelope still further. An obvious problem with this is that PC is itself a caricature of its host, Christian morality, and it is not uncommon for the two to overlap in places. What offends against PC, often enough, offends even more egregiously against its predecessor."

More here, in this blog post from 2008.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Query

I found myself wondering today if many readers of this blog read my articles in The Catholic Voice newspaper? A couple of people mentioned that they do, in comments, but I do wonder what cross-over there might be.

It's such a strange sensation, to send your thoughts out like a message in a bottle, and to have such a foggy idea of where they might end up. But I suppose all writing is like that, even writing graffiti on walls. (I never wrote on a wall in my life, but I'm utterly fascinated by graffiti.)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Drama of the Individual

Some years ago, I contributed my conversion story to the website Why I'm Catholic. (It might be the most widely-read thing I've ever written, since the site says it has clocked up almost fifty-eight thousand views.) In that account, I was rather harsh upon the religious education in my Catholic school, writing this:

The religious instruction we received was poor, apart from our first year, where an old and intensely loveable nun taught us about the mysteries of the rosary, the Fatima apparitions, the story of Maximillian Kolbe, and other solid fare. After that, religion class became, more or less, a succession of inspirational videos (mostly feature films like Shadowlands and Not Without My Daughter) and pop psychology. I don't really blame our religion teachers for this. My generation had become so hardened to religion, through the propaganda of television and pop culture, that catechesis had become almost impossible. Whatever doctrine the teachers did try to impart was met with taunting questions and smirking incredulity, for the most part.


The funny thing is that some parts of that religious education-- and, ironically enough, the very parts that I singled out for criticism here-- have stuck in my memory, and have been coming into my mind a lot lately.

The inspirational feature films that I complained about, for one. I don't remember a thing about Not Without My Daughter, but Shadowlands has become one of my very favourite films. The memory of On Golden Pond also remained with me, and I bought the DVD recently. Then there was The Brady Bunch Movie, Ironweed and Regarding Henry.

Over time, I've taken more and more pleasure in the memory of those viewings. I don't know if it was anything I felt at that time. It must have been latent, I assume, or I would have forgotten all about them.

It was the context in which we were viewing them that makes me remember them, and hark back to them with pleasure. The whole reason that these films had an impact upon me was that we were watching them with a moral purpose-- they were supposed to be good for us. Chesterton says somewhere that adults err when they suppose children hate moralism in stories. In fact, children love moralistic stories. Well, I was hardly a child when we were being shown these moralistic feature films-- I was in my mid-teens-- but I certainly enjoyed, even if it was at an unconscious level, being shown movies for the good of my health. Ultimately, I think the reason this appealed to me was very simple and very ordinary-- it was simply the feeling that somebody cared.

But it went deeper. It was the idea that life was a big deal. It was the idea that life, the human experience, was worth analysing-- not academically, not theoretically, but as one wayfarer on the journey to another. I said in another post that, back when I was not practicing a faith, I always felt a strange hunger for sermons, and wanted to be sermonised. Well, this is the same principle-- I yearned for pastoral guidance, for paternalism, for somebody to give me advice and admonition and encouragement. I wanted a hand on my shoulder. But I didn't just want it for myself. I wanted it to be out there. 'Live and let live' I still consider to be one of the most depressing philosophies imaginable. I consider that staple of newspaper cartoons, the fellow carrying the 'End is Nigh' placard, to be a public benefactor. I admire grafitti artists who scrawl anarchist slogans on walls. I think crackpots obsessed with the Freemasons are to be lauded for their public spirit. And I guess this blog is my equivalent to all of those things.

Anyway, the memory of those films-- which were a kind of filmic hand in the shoulder, if only in the spirit in which they were shown- remains with me.

Another thing that remains is the very 'pop psychology' I complained about in the conversion story, too.

Once we were asked to draw a picture, incorporating various elements like a tree and a house. The teacher came round to look at each of them and comment. She told me that the tree I'd drawn was very large and it represented my perception that finding a life partner was very important to me. I remember how hideously embarrassed I felt at that moment. And yet even then I knew that, whether it was coincidence or not, the test was right. Ever since I was a little boy, I'd craved love of that kind, so that even looking at scenes of domestic life in advertising filled me with a wistfulness I hardly understood.

Another time, we were given the questionnaire (or a questionnaire-- I don't know if there's only one or not) for the Myers-Briggs personality test. This is a personality test based on the theories of Carl Jung. You fill out a questionnaire and the answers tell you what personality type you belong to. The personality types are all permutations of four different letters. My questionnaire answer revealed me to be an INFJ. I liked the description, and I especially liked the fact that INFJ was the rarest of all the types. (I've subsequently read that self-testing is very unreliable.)

In any case, I was rather besotted with the idea of being an INFJ-- with the whole idea, in fact, of personality types. Or even of personality itself. There is something mysterious, even mystical about personality. A person has so many drives, impulses, desires, appetites, principles, whims, and so forth, that there seems something miraculous in the fact that these do not add up to complete anarchy, but that there is instead a unity running through them all. And the fact that is it an enigmatic and elusive unity only makes it more fascinating.

In fact, I am fascinated with what I might describe (as I did in my blog post) as the drama of the individual. One human being-- one heart, mind, pair of legs, pair of arms, set of memories, etc.-- is, as the Midrash puts it, a world entire. There is no end to the things that could be said about each and every one of us. An event, an atmosphere, a relation takes on infinite importance simply because it is happening to somebody. We are like glow-worms that throw out, not light, but significance-- and an endless radiance of significance. An enormous painting of a landscape takes on a whole new meaning if one solitary, tiny figure is shown against it. The tiny figure makes the landscape far larger than it would have been otherwise.

And the internal landscape, the landscape of an individual soul, is itself almost inexhaustible. I like the Neil Sedaka song 'The Other Side of Me':

Why can't you see
What's on the other side of me,
The side of me that reaches out to you?
Sweet thoughts and dreams,
Like drops of rain on rippling streams
That wind and bend,
Rivers with no end,
Flowing on the other side of me?

Not just rivers with no end; but mountain ranges, oceans, caves, cities, deserts, jungles, plains, and the tracts of space...all inside one human soul.

It isn't only the thought of the immensity of each human soul that captivates, but the thought of its drama. Human life is so inherently dramatic. Even someone who is house-bound all her life, who never meets more than a handful of people, lives a life of such intensity, and such variety, and such range that all the resources of metaphor-- space travel, war, mythology, exploration--- strain to express it. Sometimes, indeed, the whole outer world seems to me like little more than a projecting screen for the mysteries of the human spirit. The world is smaller than the soul.

This inherent drama of the human soul is, I think, built into some of our most habitual activities-- principally storytelling, dreaming and (to go its very foundations) imagination itself. And, the more you think about these activities, the more strange they become.

By storytelling, I mean it in all its senses-- from writing a novel to daydreaming about the person sitting beside you on the bus. I think human beings can no more stop telling stories-- to themselves, as well as to others-- than they can avoid breathing. We live our own lives as stories.

Dreaming, too, is very strange. Think about it. Every night we slip into a private reality, which we think is real at the time. (At one time in my childhood, this idea suddenly terrified me and I was frightened to go to sleep. I didn't want to be deluded.) But the really surprising thing about dreams is their creativity. I can easily imagine a state of things in which we didn't dream at all. But, given the existence of our dreams, you might expect them to have a certain plausibility--- to occur in the same settings as our everyday lives, to be concerned with the same round of daily activities. Instead we dream of kayaking with Dracula, and being chased by mastodons, and so forth. Indeed, I've had dreams that would be impossible to describe. (By the way, I hereby copyright the phrase 'kayaking with Dracula'.) I often wonder if this extravagance of our dream life is what took us from being the wimps of the Pleistocene era to masters of the world and explorers of the solar system. Perhaps we conquered reality through the road of fantasy.

Ultimately, though, both our propensity for storytelling and our dream life are rooted in that more basic capacity-- the imagination itself. The human imagination must be one of the most sublime of all subjects for thought. It was a favourite theme for poets, back in the eighteenth century. ("The Pleasures of Imagination" by Mark Akenside is one of those poetic 'hits' which have been forgotten utterly by popular taste.) As with dreams, the more we think about the imagination, the stranger and more miraculous it seems.

The human mind can travel from the bottom of the sea to the furthest reaches of the universe in a flash. Indeed, it can be in both places at once-- or it can combine them-- or it can create 'a new Heaven and a new Earth'. But even the most simply operations of the imagination-- the ability to see a face that is not before our eyes, or the memory of something that happened five minutes ago-- is awe-inspiring in itself. The human mind can give existence to that which does not exist, presence to that which is not there.

When you walk past a stranger in the park, or stand behind a stranger in a queue, you have no idea what is happening inside that stranger's head-- whether they are remembering picking blackberries as a child, or imagining torturing their boss, or totting up a weeekly budget, or composing a poem, or accepting an Oscar. There is something exhilarating about that radical openness.

The privacy of the human mind is another of its wonders. Even if a person is locked away in a tiny cell, they stil have an endless territory of their own, which nobody else can share unless they are invited. Like Hamlet, we could be bounded in a nutshell, and count ourselves king of infinite space. This is the cosiest of all thoughts.

All this, to my mind, raises the dignity and the drama of the individual to dizzy heights.

As a Christian, I often find myself wondering if the doctrine of death to self, and of being reborn in Christ, means we must cast away all talk of personality, of 'finding ourselves', of 'discovering who we are', of self-actualization. I hope not, since I find that human drama-- repeated in every human life-- to be infinitely fascinating. I love movies that take this drama as their theme, from Regarding Henry to The Vow. I'd like to think that Christian life only raises this drama onto a higher level, and into a wider expanse.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Prayers Please

I was writing a blog post entitled 'The Drama of the Individual', all about the wonder of human life and the mysteries of personality, and I was really getting into it, when I heard the news that someone I know-- a man not much older than me-- has a year to live.

Reader, before moving on, please say a short prayer for him, even a moment's thought turned to Heaven.

The obscenity of death is overwhelming. Christ's tears for Lazarus and his bloody sweat before his own Passion seem far more seemly to me than all the 'I have only slipped away to the next room' sentimentality. The final lines of Philip Larkin's almost unbearably brutal poem 'The Mower' also come to me:

We should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

May all the saints in Heaven, our blessed Lady, and our precious Lord comfort and guide him and his family.

Monday, August 4, 2014

More of my 'Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton' Series

For some months now, I've been writing a short weekly article ever week for The Open Door, a local magazine distributed in Kildare, West Dublin and Meath. (Although I came across some copies of it in my own local church. It gets around, apparently.)

This is the third quintet of articles that I've reproduced here. You can find the first five here and the second five here.

The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton

Last week, we saw how Chesterton’s boyhood reverence for the Blessed Virgin Mary prefigured his reception, decades later, into the Catholic Church. That is the mystical side of the matter. But it was Chesterton’s intellect, just as much as his intuition, that led him into the Church, and we see this foreshadowed in his early life as well.

To understand the ideas of G.K. Chesterton, we need to appreciate his commitment to—indeed, his voracious hunger for—debate and discussion. This fondness for arguing began in his childhood. Specifically, it began when he was presented with a little brother, Cecil.

This is how Chesterton himself describes the event: “It is reported of me that when I was told that I possessed a brother, I said ; "That's all right, now I shall always have an audience." If I did say this, I was in error. My brother was by no means disposed to be merely an audience, and frequently forced the function of an audience upon me. ...We argued throughout our boyhood and youth until we became the pest of our whole social circle. We shouted at each other across the table, on the subject of Parnell or Puritanism or Charles the First's head, until our nearest and dearest fled at our approach, and we had a desert around us. And though it is not a matter of undiluted pleasure to recall having been so horrible a nuisance, I am rather glad in other ways that we did so early thrash out our own thoughts on almost all the subjects in the world. I am also glad to think that through all those years we never stopped arguing; and we never once quarrelled.”

Cecil Chesterton died in the First World War, but he had converted to Catholicism six years before that. Gilbert did not follow suit until 1922. But it is certain that it was their shared commitment to reason that brought them to the same destination.

As Chesterton wrote: “Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves…The Catholic Church carries a sort of map…which is in fact a guide to the maze. It has been compiled from knowledge which, even considered as human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel. There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years.”

Next week, we will continue looking at Chesterton’s story

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For the past few weeks, we have been looking at the early life of G.K. Chesterton, and examining the influence this had upon his conversion to Catholicism, much later in life. We have seen how his boyhood reverence for the Virgin Mary and his never-ending debate with his younger brother predisposed him towards both the mystical and rational aspects of the Faith.

Let us move forward in time, then, to Chesterton’s years in art school.

Chesterton attended the Slade Art school but he left without a degree. A friend who knew him from boyhood said that his drawing style (for he was quite an accomplished cartoonist) was fully formed by the time he got to the Slade, and that his training there made no difference to it at all.

During this time, however, an inner drama was taking place which would be influence Chesterton for the rest of his life. This was the era of Decadent poets and Impressionist painters. The whole atmosphere of the time, coupled with his own fertile imagination, threw Chesterton into a mood of intense scepticism. He wondered if reality itself might not be as insubstantial, as lacking in solidity, as the blurry forms on an Impressionist’s canvas.

This is how he described the experience: “At a very early age I had thought my way back to thought itself. It is a very dreadful thing to do; for it may lead to thinking that there is nothing but thought. At this time I did not very clearly distinguish between dreaming and waking; not only as a mood but as a metaphysical doubt, I felt as if everything might be a dream. It was as if I had myself projected the universe from within, with its trees and stars; and that is so near to the notion of being God that it is manifestly even nearer to going mad. Yet I was not mad, in any medical or physical sense; I was simply carrying the scepticism of my time as far as it would go.’

Chesterton’s doubts about reality were accompanied by a profound sense of evil. He wrote: “There is something truly menacing in the thought of how quickly I could imagine the maddest, when I had never committed the mildest crime. Something may have been due to the atmosphere of the Decadents, and their perpetual hints of the luxurious horrors of paganism; but I am not disposed to dwell much on that defence; I suspect I manufactured most of my morbidities for myself.“

How did his passage through this strange mental fog eventually help Chesterton attain the sunlit uplands of Catholic faith? We’ll answer that question next week.

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Last week, we saw that Chesterton’s faith in God—which, later in his life, led him to the Catholic Church—owed a lot to a rather dark period in his young manhood. At this time, he fell into an abyss of doubt and of scepticism, even doubting the reality of the world around him. It also involved a phase of experimentation with the ‘planchette’, or ouija board—which he always regarded as a genuine brush with the demonic.

“In truth, the story of what was called my Optimism was rather odd. When I had been for some time in these, the darkest depths of the contemporary pessimism, I had a strong inward impulse to revolt; to dislodge this incubus or throw off this nightmare. But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this; that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing…I hung on to the remains of religion by one thin thread of thanks. I thanked whatever gods might be, not like Swinburne, because no life lived for ever, but because any life lived at all; not, like Henley for my unconquerable soul (for I have never been so optimistic about my own soul as all that) but for my own soul and my own body, even if they could be conquered.”

The Swinburne referred to is the poet Charles Algernon Swinburne, whose poem ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ thanked ‘whatever gods may be’ that ‘dead man rise up never’ and ‘no man lives forever’. Henley is the Imperialist poet whose poem ‘Invictus’ also thanks ‘whatever gods may be’ that he remains ‘the master of my fate’ and ‘the captain of my soul’. Two wonderful poems, but one written to express a poisonous despair, and the other written to express a deadening pride.

Chesterton continues: “The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy….When I did begin to write, I was full of a new and fiery resolution to write against the Decadents and the Pessimists who ruled the culture of the age.”

And so he did, in early books like The Defendant, whose very title expresses the young Chesterton’s eagerness to defend life’s simple goodness from cynics and from sour sophisticates. Of course, his pilgrim’s progress to the Catholic faith was only beginning.

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In previous weeks, we have been looking at the life of G.K. Chesterton, and the ‘steps on his pilgrim journey’ towards his eventual conversion to Catholicism at the age of 48.

Perhaps the most important factor in Chesterton’s embrace of Christianity—and, subsequently, Catholicism—was his wife, Frances.

Frances Chesterton, who had the unfortunate maiden name Frances Blogg (an incentive to marry if ever there was one), always features very prominently in biographies and studies of her husband. This, of course, need not necessarily have been the case. Many famous men (and women) can be understood without reference to their spouses. Chesterton is not one of them.

When he met Frances, Chesterton was a young man spreading his wings in journalism and beginning to move amongst ‘intellectual’ circles. Frances was the daughter of a family who lived in Bedsford Park, which Chesterton described as ‘a colony for artists who were almost aliens; a refuge for persecuted poets and painters’.

Amidst this world of bohemianism, however, Frances was decidedly not a bohemian. As Chesterton put it in his autobiography: “She practised gardening; in that curious Cockney culture she would have been quite ready to practise farming; and on the same perverse principle, she actually practised a religion. This was something utterly unaccountable both to me and to the whole fussy culture in which she lived. Any number of people proclaimed religions, chiefly oriental religions, analysed or argued about them; but that anybody could regard religion as a practical thing like gardening was something quite new to me and, to her neighbours, new and incomprehensible. She had been, by an accident, brought up in the school of an Anglo-Catholic convent; and to all that agnostic or mystic world, practising a religion was much more puzzling than professing it.”

Humour aside, we see here an important principle in Chesterton’s thought. He did not play with religious ideas. He took them seriously. He was a staunch defender of dogma. As he put it: “There are two things, and two things only, for the human mind -- a dogma and a prejudice.” He called heresy by its name. He celebrated orthodoxy.

When his own pilgrimage took him to the Catholic faith, Frances did not follow at first. Indeed, she cried at his confirmation, and many of Gilbert’s friends believed he delayed his conversion because he didn’t want to act apart from her. (Being an incredibly impractical man, he was notoriously reliant upon Frances. She even tied his laces.) But the story ends happily. Frances converted to the Catholic faith four years after Chesterton—very much, as she insisted, on her own steam and not simply following her husband.

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In recent weeks, we’ve been looking at the life of G.K. Chesterton, as an aid to understanding his ideas. We’ve seen how his upbringing, in a Unitarian household in the Victorian era, influenced his view of the world. We saw how, later on, the sceptical and pessimistic atmosphere of the period in which he attained manhood made him a defender of optimism and gratitude. Last week, we examined the most important relationship of his life, which was his marriage to Frances Blogg.

But there are other important figures in Chesterton’s life, some of them so important that we can’t really examine his life and thoughts without mentioning them. In this series I will mention two more; Hilaire Belloc and George Bernard Shaw.

It’s possible that some readers of The Open Door may not have heard of Hilaire Belloc. Like Chesterton, he was something of a literary Jack-of-all-Trades, producing a great mass of journalism, fiction, history and biography. Like Chesterton, he was a defender of the traditions and tastes of ordinary people—such as drinking beer and bringing up their own children-- against all forms of modernism. Unlike Chesterton, he was a cradle Catholic. Long before Chesterton converted to Catholicism, Belloc was making the case for Catholicism to an English public that had largely passed from anti-Catholic Protestantism to anti-Christian agnosticism.

Belloc’s influence on Chesterton is important. Chesterton, though well-read in every subject, was rather timid about his grasp of history. The only pure history book he wrote, A Short History of the English People, was written reluctantly, and after much badgering from a publisher. And when Chesterton did write about history—English history, at least—he usually drew heavily on the theories of Belloc.

What were these ideas? The main one was the modern English capitalism was the child of the Reformation. Belloc and Chesterton believed that Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries had led to a massive land-grab and wealth-grab, which permanently skewed English history in favour of a small wealthy class. The ordinary Englishman owned no property and had to work for somebody else.

Belloc and Chesterton were the leading lights in a movement—Distributism—that sought to correct this. ‘Three acres and a cow’ was their slogan, since that (or something like it) was what they wanted every citizen to own. They were influenced by Catholic social teaching , especially Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which rejected both socialism and unfettered capitalism. Distributism never achieved much in any tangible way, but there are still Distributists today.

Chesterton and Belloc, together, were nicknamed ‘the Chesterbelloc’ by George Bernard Shaw. Next week, we’ll look at the long-running friendly debate between Shaw and Chesterton.