Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Are you a Catholic Bibliophile living in Dublin?

Then I heartily recommend the second-hand bookshop attached to Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church.

You can find some wonderful Catholic and Christian books there (not to mention some fine secular titles), most of them very cheap indeed. Today I bought To Be a Pilgrim by the late Cardinal Basil Hume, for one euro. On previous visits, I've found Chesterton's biography of St. Francis of Assisi and some other good stuff. There are many old, handsome hardbacks-- I remember a rather splendid, two-volume biography of Cardinal Manning, that I persuaded myself I didn't really want or need.

They also have a "to clear" trolley outside where everything is going for ten cents. I've picked up past issues of various Catholic publications there in the past. The reading of old periodicals is a unique and rather contemplative pleasure, one that Orwell lauded in one of his less bellicose newspaper articles. (Unfortunately, on today's visit I found little on the trolley besides old copies of The Tablet-- I'd read about The Tablet's reputation before, but one look at the names of its contributors and the titles of its articles convinced me it was better left unread. I think I would rather read Jack Chick than John Cornwell.)

Old magazines, if you can find them on sale, aren't always especially cheap. I recently acquired several old copies of Studies from the bargain stand outside UCD's Campus Bookshop, at a euro each, but the old periodicals to be found in Chapter's bookshop in Parnell Street are no cheaper than their second-hand books-- which aren't very cheap themselves.

To me, a bookshop isn't a proper bookshop if it doesn't yield surprises, if there is no potential for a happy discovery. Also, it needs to have a character and a soul-- that mysterious tendency to throw up books of a certain type or period, often cutting across boundaries of genre and subject. (The Books Upstairs in the Omni, now closed, had a particular penchant for disasters and the occult, for instance.)

What discoveries are to be made on the shelves of Hughes and Hughes or Hodges Figgis or Dubray Books, except a perfect reflection of the latest intellectual and literary fashions, the TV schedules and the multiplexes? They are utterly impersonal and soulless-- the handwritten book recommendations by members of staff that are tacked to some shelves are a forlorn attempt to make them seem less impersonal, but the recommendations are so utterly predictable as to totally belie this. Doubtless, like everything else, selling books is becoming more of a science all the time, and less and less room is left over for serendipity or happenstance. How much we sacrifice on the altar of Efficiency!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Pioneer Paradox, or the Cowboy Contradiction

A rather odd one, this time; please bear with me.

I have found myself thinking more and more about a certain contradiction at the heart of many human activites-- what I might call the pioneer paradox, or the cowboy contradiction. I've come up with this name because cowboys and pioneers (as in "pioneer spirit") seem to embody this contradiction.

The whole romance of the cowboy and the pioneer is that they are thrusting out into the unknown, into a rather lawless world where a man's only bosses are hunger and danger, where life is tough in one way, but free and easy in another-- a man can safely expectorate into the spitoon without much fear of social disapproval. A world where men are men, and where life is there for the taking.

But what did the cowboy and the pioneer leave in their wake?

Development. Farms. Towns. Streets. Family fortunes. Law and order. In other words, all the things whose very absence makes the idea of cowboys romantic.

I think the same idea applies to the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs figures of this world, all the college drop-outs who eschew shirts and ties and build vast business empires clad in Bermuda shirts, huddling in computer laboratories all hours of the day with other wacky, free-spirited visionaries, living on take-away pizza and coffee.

Do they build empires of wacky, Bermuda-shirt wearing executives who skateboard into work whenever they feel like it and work till the wee hours, in between games of Nintendo?

No, they produce more and more glass and concrete cubes where more and more cubicle slaves pass their lives in mortgage slavery.

Or take inveterate tourists, or-- as they like to consider themselves-- people who are passionate about travel. They see themselves as cosmopolitan, open-minded, adventurous. They seek places "off the beaten track" and that aren't "touristy". They shop for souvenirs of actual, indigenous art.

And, to cater to their appetite, more and more books and websites and magazine articles reveal the latest "unspoiled" village or beach or valley, which soon becomes a tourist hotspot, and whose inhabitants are soon making war-masks or woven sweaters or mosaic patterns for the tourist market.

I think this principle applies, too, to liberal or left-wing nationalism. I don't understand the weird hybrid of patriotism and Marxism that Sinn Féin have embraced. I understand DeValeran protectionism, ruralism, and traditionalism; I understand the internationalism, liberalism and futurism of a thoroughgoing communist.

But how can the liberal nationalist, who sees national liberation as an end in itself, but longs for his country to become "outward-looking", "progressive", and "pluralist", not see the contradiction in his own position? Does he not see that, when the political struggle has succeeded and his country has attained its own government, his whole political philosophy has negated itself? There is no longer any reason to be a nationalist. Soon the currents of history, with his full approval, will wash away all trace of his struggles and passions; the patriotic ballads fade away, to be replaced by the honking of fancy cars and the blare of rap music.

The same applies to liberalism in general. Liberals strives for the emancipation of groups, such as Muslims or travellers or ethnic minorities, whose entire culture and survival is threatened by liberalism's own inexorable logic.

I think the Pioneer Paradox applies to many things in life, and makes us stop short (when we perceive it) and see so much of the controversies and causes around us as self-negating.

But one place the Pioneer Paradox doesn't apply is in a church. That is one cause that never becomes obsolete, one well whose waters will never leave us thirsty. In the contemplation and love and worship of God we find what the world is always restlessly searching for; that which is complete in itself, and is its own justification, and can never be exhausted.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

One Thing I Really Like About Lent...

...it's almost impossible to commercialize!

Suggestion for Amnesty International

Amnesty International, who now proclaim abortion as a human right in some circumstances, have a billboard campaign showing various sombre faces besides captions such as: "Alison got over her suicide attempt. The gossip left deeper marks. Mental health problems don't discriminate, people do."

(Which is ridiculous, for a start. Of course mental health problems discriminate. And what has it got to do with amnesty?)

I sent them a suggestion for a new caption: "Stephanie got over her abortion. Her unborn child never will."

There are a lot of people out there who seem unaware that Amnesty are a pro-choice organization now.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Dear Old Dirty Dublin, Captured in Fourteen Lines

By Sir Osbert Lancaster, who was better known as a political cartoonist than a poet, and who died in 1986.

I think these lines evoke, with amazing vividness, a very particular aspect of the Dublin that I remember from my childhood. Especially in the more decrepit areas of the city centre, there was a powerful atmosphere of stagnation and of decayed grandeur. It seemed to me that Dublin was still living on the glory of a dead past; and the fact that it was a recently dead past (let us take the era of Flann O Brien and Patrick Kavanagh as a reasonable date of expiration) only made it seem more deathly, not less. It was a city haunted by stories of revolutionaries and street characters, pubs filled with smokey photographs of literary luminaries who had died before my father was born, and smog-darkened Georgian facades where this inventor or that artist had been born more than a century ago.

The whole atmosphere depressed me as a child, and it's taken me until now (when it exists mostly in memory) to find a certain piquant appeal to it-- now there's an acquired taste for you. I'm astonished that Lancaster (a Sassenach, to boot) managed to capture it so brilliantly. How did he ever think of such a perfect metaphor as "this drained aquarium"?

As far as I know this is the only correct text of the poem on the internet (I copied and pasted it from an Augustinian site which gets the second line wrong-- it is Ctesiphon, not Cresiphon. Ctesiphon is the name of an ancient, ruined city in Iran. Wikipedia told me that.)

I discovered this poem years ago in a book about James Joyce, and it always stuck with me. I hope you like it.

The distant Seychelles are not so remote
Nor Ctesiphon so ultimately dead
As this damp square round which tired echoes float
Of something brilliant that George Moore once said:
Where, still, in pitch-pine snugs pale poets quote
Verses rejected by the Bodley Head.
For in this drained aquarium no breeze
Deposits pollen from more fertile shores
Or kills the smell of long unopened drawers
That clings forever to these dripping trees.
Where Bloom once wandered, gross and ill-at-ease,
Twice-pensioned heroes of forgotten wars
With misplaced confidence demand applause
Shouting stale slogans over the Liffey quays.

-Osbert Lancaster.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

There Should be a Law...

Why is it that public discourse focuses, with such ruthless concentration, upon the State, government and legislation? Why is it so difficult for people to understand that, though these realities are unquestionably important, they are not of such overriding importance that we should discuss nothing else?

If you declare that you are opposed to something—for instance, casinos, or 24-hour trading hours—many people immediately assume that you are calling for the government to ban these things.

Well, that may be so. I would be all in favour of a government ban on 24-hour shopping. But I don’t have to support such a measure in order to decry gambling or rampant consumerism, or anything else.

In the same way, if I declare my support for some institution or some philosophy—marriage, say, or poetry that rhymes and scans, or patriotism—then many people will instantly assume I am arguing that we should support these things through tax breaks, or changes to the English syllabus, or the pictures that we put on postage stamps.

Similarly, if I express support for censorship, my listener assumes I mean State censorship. I might. But I might also mean censorship by libraries, schools, radio stations or any other public forum.

This is the most insidious form of “statism” there is, and it is common to libertarians, liberals and conservatives. Perhaps the problem is that we have become too influenced by the image of the “town hall” and the “public square”.

Samuel Johnson wrote: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, the part which laws or kings can cause or cure!” It could be that "laws or kings" have more influence over us today than they did in Johnson's time, but there is still a great deal of truth in those lines.

I believe this form of thinking was the biggest mistake of Irish nationalism in the twentieth century—we became so fixated on the colour of the flag that flew over our parliament, that we neglected the more important parts of national revival—tradition, culture, social habits, folklore, dress and all the million other things that lie outside the realm of politics. Now we have a country of our own but we are less Irish than we were under the British Empire.

Think, too, how tedious it becomes to hear Irish atheists attacking the broadcasting of the Angelus on RTE, or religious education in State schools, or the presence of a Christmas crib in the GPO! We know what they are really opposed to—not religion imposing upon their lives, but religion itself. Let them just come out and say it—believers are big enough to take it. Let us have an honest debate about what constitutes the good in human life and human society, without hiding behind these sulky, juvenile protests over which side of the bedroom belongs to us.

After all, when “the public square” becomes a bullet-ridden no-man’s-land, nobody wins.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Abolition of Britain by Peter Hitchens-- Read It!

Today, I have found myself once again leafing through The Abolition of Britain by Peter Hitchens, a 1999 book (rewritten in 2008) which laments the decline of a nation, mostly at the hands of social revolutionaries but also as a result of rampant consumerism.

The only reason for this post is to tell whatever readers I have that this book is a masterpiece, and they should definitely buy it and read it. Each time I've read it I've been impressed by its depth of thought, its breadth of vision, its almost magisterial authoritativeness. I loaned it to a friend (an Englishman), who is now looking to buy a copy for a friend of his own. (Apparently it is out of print at the moment, but in this age of the internet a second-hand copy should be readily obtainable.)

Peter Hitchens was a Trotskist who, through his experiences as an industrial relations and foreign correspondent-- as well as becoming a father-- eventually became an Anglican and a traditionalist conservative. (Not a Thatcherite or a libertarian-- he decries the lifting of the Lady Chatterley ban, devotes a chapter to attacking television, and is a partisan of the railways as against the car. In fact, Hitchens is notable as being pretty much one of only two eminent traditionalist conservatives on this side of the Atlantic-- Roger Scruton is the other. Today, the ideological divide is pretty much between liberals of the right and liberals of the left.)

I am an Irish patriot-- but I have a tenderness for England, perhaps for my own mythical idea of Englishness (but then, myths have their own reality), that probably runs even deeper than my Irish patriotism. For all the strife between our nations, I do not believe that any Irish patriot can look without distress at our sister island's near-complete bulldozing of its traditions and history. Whenever I have visited England, it seemed to me like one vast necropolis-- the people were nice, sure enough, but they seemed to be living in the still-standing ruins of a vanished civilisation. The Abolition of Britain describes how that civilisation vanished.

Of course, we are well en route to doing the same thing with our own country...

In a plaintive conclusion to a recent post on his blog, Hitchens wrote: "I do not know how much longer I shall be allowed to express my opinions on major public platforms. The Brave New World grows closer, and the world a little darker, each day."

So there you go-- buy and read The Abolition of Britain before it becomes illegal to do so.

Friday, March 16, 2012

What is There to Sneer At In This Speech? I Never Could Tell....

As broadcast on St. Patrick's Day 1943 by President Eamon De Valera.

Long before I became a conservative or embraced my Catholicism, even back in my radical teens when I regarded nationalism as a romantic distraction from reality, this seemed like an entirely noble vision to me. Wondering why ideals like this were mocked and repudiated helped to, eventually, make me a full-blown traditionalist.

Happy St. Patrick's Day to all my readers!

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. It was the idea of such an Ireland - happy, vigorous, spiritual - that fired the imagination of our poets; that made successive generations of patriotic men give their lives to win religious and political liberty; and that will urge men in our own and future generations to die, if need be, so that these liberties may be preserved. One hundred years ago, the Young Irelanders, by holding up the vision of such an Ireland before the people, inspired and moved them spiritually as our people had hardly been moved since the Golden Age of Irish civilisation. Fifty years later, the founders of the Gaelic League similarly inspired and moved the people of their day. So, later, did the leaders of the Irish Volunteers. We of this time, if we have the will and active enthusiasm, have the opportunity to inspire and move our generation in like manner. We can do so by keeping this thought of a noble future for our country constantly before our eyes, ever seeking in action to bring that future into being, and ever remembering that it is for our nation as a whole that future must be sought.

Is Lent Morbid?

There is an excellent article in this week’s Irish Catholic, in which Father Ron Rolheiser laments that the modern world has forgotten the essential link between fast and feast; that we celebrate without purifying ourselves beforehand, without entering into a suitably solemn frame of mind, even without appropriate anticipation. We simply rush onto the fun, and the fun inevitably seems anti-climactic.

“In a word”, he says, “Christmas is no longer special because we’ve celebrated it during Advent, weddings are no longer special because we’ve already slept with the bride, and experiences of all kind are often flat and unable to excite because we’ve had them prematurely.”

I have been thinking a lot about this during Lent. Lent is a time of self-denial and penance. Isn’t that a bit morbid? A bit masochistic? Isn’t it confirmation that Christians are essentially killjoys who view happiness and pleasure as rather suspect?

I don’t think so. And one proof that there is nothing essentially Christian about renunciation is that virtually all philosophies of life involve some element of renunciation, or the struggle against temptation.

Rationalists congratulate themselves upon shunning wishful thinking and supersition, or the belief that there is anything special about humankind. For the rationalist, the spirit of rational thought strives against the flesh of intuition and bias.

Environmentalists, of course, have made renunciation pretty much the central theme of their philosophy—they strive to live in harmony with nature and to mortify the urge to exploit it.

Aesthetes, drop-outs, slackers and bohemians resist society’s expectations to hold down a regular job, obey social conventions, or produce edifying art with a moral message.

Libertarians resist the temptation to judge other peoples’ ways of life.

Even supporters of Ayn Rand, of the anti-altruistic philosophy of Objectivism, have their own temptation to resist—society’s guilt-tripping attempts to make them their brothers’ keepers.

And, of course, proponents of “liberation” such as feminists or gay rights activists seem to be a thousand times more puritanical and repressive than the mainstream they decry—they pounce upon turns of phrase or daily habits that seem perfectly innocent, and hold them up as evidence of ingrained bigotry. Read a page of a feminist or “queer” philosopher and you will soon end up feeling you are supposed to second-guess everything you say and do-- and usually not say or do it at all.

Every philosophy of life involves renunciation and sacrifice and restraint—and who could live without a philosophy of life? To make the attempt would itself be a heroic renunciation.

So there is nothing inhuman or joyless or life-hating about Lent, or about the Christian requirement for purification and mortification. Human nature cries out for a fast as much as it does for a feast, for penance as much as celebration. When we have the one without the other, there is a nagging—perhaps even a subconscious—feeling of incompleteness, of banality.

In this as in all things, Christianity’s aim is that we shall have life, and have it to the full.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Does Technology Destroy Wonder?

I'm a fan of Adam Sandler, the comedian and film star. Not a big fan, but a fan nonetheless. His films are usually pretty lowbrow and rather too scatalogical for my taste. But they do have a big heart and a fondness for the underdog, which is something relatively rare in contemporary comedy cinema.

My favourite of his films was probably Grown-Ups, a recent release. One scene in particular stuck with me.

In the film, Adam Sandler plays a successful talent agent, and a father whose two children take for granted all the mod cons (the very term now seems hopelessly antiquated) and all the privileges of wealth. In this scene, he is watching his son through the window of a holiday home. The kid, who barely knows what to do with himself away from his computers and his mobile phone, has picked up a stone and is examining it, as though he has never seen one before.

Adam Sandler, unnoticed by his son, urges him under his breath to throw the stone-- at the lake, at his brother, even at his own head.

Instead, the boy simply drops the stone and wanders off. I thought it was a very touching moment (and happily, the sad conclusion to the scene is corrected later in the movie).

I have found my mind returning to that scene again and again, especially when I find myself remembering my own childhood.

I was no Huckleberry Finn, no Tom Sawyer. The television was always on at home, and from pretty early on I had access to casette tapes and vinyl records. Many of my toys required batteries. I was spared mobile phones, and for the most part, computer games (I remember my cousin had a Spectrum or Amstrad or one of those early consoles-- the games took longer to load than to play). But I certainly cannot claim to be of a generation that "had to make our own amusements".

And yet, and yet-- all the most magical moments, all the moments of most potent wonder in my childhood and teens, were distinctly low-tech and non-consumerist.

I remember, I remember...

I remember school jumble sales. I remember my imagination being stirred by the fact that the games and comics and books on the stalls were not brand new, or out of a packet, that they already had a history. I remember a sense of excitement that the sale was so informal and improvised, like some medieval market-place. It had all the delightful atmosphere of a teddy bear's picnic or a doll's tea party about it.

I remember Halloween nights, one Halloween night in particular. I remember the powerful sense that everything was different for that one night-- it didn't seem like a mere convention, but something essential to the time, something that even the air and the wind and stars knew about. I remember the taste of nuts and grapes and lemonade, the perfect way the different elements of the night came together to form a whole, a distinctive territory of the imagination. I remember the sense of primal awe in staring into the flames of a bonfire, in feeling a deeper sense of community with all the neighbours standing around.

I remember sitting in a darkened field with local kids, after soccer games that lasted as long as the sunlight, and telling ghost stories. Some of the ghost stories I heard in those settings have continued to haunt me, so to speak. One kid in the neigbhourhood supposedly drew a witch on one side of a garden shed door, and a pentangle on the other. The next day, they had switched places. The sheer economy and oddness of that tale has always spooked me.

I remember lying in bed one night, after such a session, and desperately trying not to say the Lord's Prayer backwards, since this would summon Old Nick himself, as I had been told. I didn't know how I would pass the rest of my life without summoning him in spite of myself.

I remember crossing a broad park that was calf-deep in snow with my grown-up sister and little brother, and throwing snowballs, and exulting in the sheer novelty of the glowing white substance. (There was very little snow in my childhood.)

I remember-- and I don't know if I was even aware of this at the time-- reading stories and literary excerpts in my primary school reader, and being transported by the evocative power of the printed word, and the whole idea that words could suggest far more than they said.

I remember electricity black-outs, when we would get out the candles, gather in one room, and make shadow puppets on the walls and ceilings.

I remember swinging from the boughs of trees with my little brother, our feet balanced on the upturned end of a cart, on long summer evenings on my aunt's farm. I remember still feeling the rocking motion as we lay in bed that night.

I remember singing Christmas carols in the frosty air, with my class-mates, in a local shopping centre, and thinking our voices were like the voices of angels.

To be fair, I am being selective here. I also vividly remember my first trips to the cinema, which were occasions of inexpressible marvel to me. Life had never seemed so impressive or so significant as it did on that huge screen, against that outer-space darkness that framed it. Similarly, I have memories of watching TV that are not only happy, but bathed in a kind of glow of security and sublimity. I remember how excited I was to buy my comics, the Transformers and Eagle, every Thursday, and to read them as I followed my mother around the shopping centre.

But, in general, the moments of intensest wonder in my younger days seem remarkably pre-modern, in one way or another-- either because of the absence of technology, or the element of folklore (the ghost stories), or the connection with tradition (Halloween). I can't help feeling that technology, consumerism and pop cuture tend to erode the sense of wonder, and that it is important to preserve some time and space free from these things for children-- and for adults, too.

What is this post doing in a blog called The Irish Papist? Well, just think of how much folk and traditional culture survives because of religion. I doubt we would have a Halloween night without an All Soul's Day. Then there are the Bible stories, the decoration of Christmas trees, the hanging of Christmas decorations, the making of cribs, the making of Bridget's crosses, the singing of Christmas carols. Children with Catholic upbringing get to taste the exhilarating solemnity of churches, the lighting of candles before holy statues, and other reverential acts.

And, since this is the Irish Papist blog, I should mention the wonder-inducing legacies of our national heritage too; stories of Cú Chullain and Fionn Mac Cumhaill, patriotic ballads, statues of patriots, streets named after national heroes, dolmens and high crosses and ogham stones. Of course, all these things are available to cosmopolitans as well as patriots, but can the cosmopolitan ever feel the same emotional connection to them?

I am sure that there are many good parents out there who are secularist and progressive and internationalist, and who rear their children according to these philosophies. But I think it is very possible that their children, so removed from a sacred or patriotic tradition, will miss some of the wonder of childhood-- not to mention the wonder of life.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Eucharistic Adoration-- the Opposite of Entertainment

My parish church is holding Tuesday evening sessions (if that is the right word) of Eucharistic Adoration all through Lent. It did the same in Advent. I do my very best to make it to every one.

I'm always surprised by the number of people that attend Eucharistic Adoration. It seems the least likely "draw" there could be. And nothing seems more guaranteed to provoke the scorn of the rationalist; here is a bunch of people kneeling and staring at a wafer on a table, the long silences only punctuated by a few hymns and the wafting of incense (at the last one I attended, the priest was unable to get the incense to rise, which brought some comedy into the solemnity).

Eucharistic Adoration doesn't even have the stimulating aspects of the liturgy-- no homily, no Scripture readings, no litanies. And yet, strangely, people seem enthusiastic about Adoration in a way that they are often not about the Mass. And Adoration is not obligatory, as at least some Masses are.

I understand that this is partly down to novelty value. Eucharistic Adoration has become more popular in recent years. We are not as accustomed to it as we are to the Mass. It feels "special" in a way the Mass does not (although the Mass is special beyond words).

But I think it is more than this. I think Eucharistic Adoration is so utterly counter-cultural that many people find it a blessed tonic.

First of all, there is the silence. Silence is not a feature of contemporary life. We are continually bombarded with pop songs, advertisements for washing up powder, television screens perched in pubs and waiting rooms, car engines, burglar alarms that screech on indefinitely.

But it's not just silence per se. As everybody knows, silence is not just the absence of sound; there are different sorts of silence. The silence of a graveyard is very different to the silence of a deserted beach.

And there is nothing like the silence of a church. I love the line in "Church Going" by Philip Larkin in which he describes the atmosphere inside a church; the "tense, musty, unignorable silence brewed God knows how long." Brewed! That's exactly it. When it has the chance, silence accumulates, deepens, thickens. And the silence of a church is pregnant with the memory of years upon years of prayer and reverence.

The silence of Eucharistic Adoration is a shared silence. That, too, changes its nature. To share silence with somebody, most of the time, is a sign of acceptance and love. We may not know the person kneeling next to us in the pew at Eucharistic Adoration, but there is a kind of love in the silence we share.

But the funniest thing about Adoration is that the very lack of entertainment and diversion has a deep appeal to us. In our consumer society, we are saturated with entertainment from our earliest days. And now, with i-phones and MP3 players, the entertainment doesn't have to let up even when we are away from a TV or computer screen. In the sublime words of TS Eliot, we are "distracted from distraction by distraction." We learn to crave novelty and variety to the extent that bonds-- whether to our past, our heritage, our religion, or our family-- begin to feel onerous, rather than precious. Instant rather than deferred gratification becomes the goal. Nobody reads poetry, because poetry requires too much mental effort and patience.

And the strangest thing about this non-stop flow of entertainment is that it makes us utterly, hopelessly bored. The addict requires stronger and stronger doses, and in the end nothing is strong enough.

Paradoxically, staring at a consecrated Host for long periods of time becomes an antidote to boredom.

I know that I haven't even mentioned the supernatural aspects of Adoration. I know that is not simply a form of therapy or relaxation, but an audience with our Blessed Lord and a channel of grace.

But I don't think I can do justice to such an exalted theme. Nor do I feel the action of grace during Adoration; I have no doubt that is happening, but I am not aware of God speaking to me in the moment. I have never had a thought or a decision sail into my mind with all the force of revelation.

No, my topic here is a humbler one-- how strange and wonderful it is that people will willingly leave their busy lives, their TVs and their DVD players and tennis clubs, to kneel in silent adoration before what the secular world sees as nothing but a white wafer, but the eyes of faith perceives as the body of Our Blessed Lord.

Friday, March 2, 2012

No Miracles Please

If it be granted that Jesus really had an abnormal power in action, it is evident that this very fact would stimulate rumour and imagination to exaggeration and embellishment and invention of miraculous incident. It is evident that we may quite properly approach the miracle narratives with a certain expectation of finding such features in them; and that it will not do, in face of some sheer prodigy, to rest content with "the mysterious gift" as a solution to every difficulty. Thus a raising from the dead, as that of Lazarus, or a changing of water into wine (both stories only in St. John) is excluded from the region of the historically conceivable and admissable. And there is in the Synoptists also matter enough that passes these limits, e.g., the walking on the sea, the feeding of the five thousand, the tale of the Gadarene swine. When such stories have been deducted, then practically all that is left in the Synoptics are cases of healing, though of course some of these are of an astonishing character.

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 1917


Liberal theology is a complete mystery to me. Rudolf Otto was a Christian; a Lutheran. He seems, in fact, to have been a man of sincere faith. He believed Jesus Christ was the son of God. He believed Jesus rose from the dead, though not bodily (despite the Gospels straining to stress the bodily nature of the Resurrection, with the boiled fish and the hand in the wounds).

But miracles? Not at any price, thank you. (I can't help smiling at the idea that raising a man from the dead and turning water into wine are equally "inadmissable".)

This scepticism doesn't make sense to me. If God is such an interventionist as to send His only-begotten Son into the world, why on earth would He hesitate to override the usual laws of nature for the sake of that Son?

I suppose the story of Jesus, denuded of miracles, is still historically plausible. I suppose a man could be so charismatic as to gather such a following on the strength of his teaching alone, and that teaching could represent such a threat to the religious and civil establishment that they would have him killed.

But the Gospel stories seem utterly gutted by the omission of miracles; there is nothing incidental or purely decorative about them. They seem, as it were, artistically necessary.

I do, however, find something endearingly quixotic in a mind that cannot accept supernaturalism, but still hails Christ as its Lord. There seems something rather noble in that quasi-agnosticism which cannot, for all its rationalism, turn away from the face of Our Saviour. I suppose you might call it the witness of the dubious.