(This post is dedicated to Mr. D. Newman, who I hope will appreciate at least some of it.)
I think my favourite line
from the entire Bible might be from the story of the finding of the boy Jesus
in the Temple, in Luke 2:19. It is variously translated, but my favourite
translation is: "And Mary treasured all these things in her heart,
thinking of them often."
Like many other Christians,
and even many other Catholics, I've had 'Mary issues' in my time-- and perhaps
I still do. These issues were never so much theological as they were devotional
and (I suppose) emotional. I've just never seemed to 'get' the Blessed Virgin
in the same way that many other Catholics do. I wrote a whole article about
this in The Catholic Voice. In that article, I mentioned the benign envy
with which I watch other worshippers walk up to shrines of Mary, caress her
feet, linger before her, and generally behave towards her as children
naturally behave towards their mother.
Nothing is more beautiful
in all of Catholic devotion than the spontaneous, sentimental, emotional love
that Catholics show towards the Virgin Mary. I have nothing but admiration and
envy for it. I just haven't really felt it, on a personal level-- at
least , not with the same intensity that most Catholic seem to feel it.
Is this something to do
with my upbringing? I never knew either of my grandmothers, and I lost my
mother when I was in my early twenties. We lost her at the phase when I was at
my most awkward, inhibited and withdrawn. Still, many people lose their mother
much sooner, or never know her at all. And these circumstances, such as they
are, might just as well have led me to an extravagant Marian fervour.
One reader of this blog,
years ago, actually mentioned the lack of Marian devotion in my posts. I'm not
sure I've corrected it since then.
So I suppose it's ironic,
or surprising, that my favourite line of the Bible concerns the Blessed Mother.
After all, she's not mentioned all that often-- she is "a woman wrapped in
silence", as one writer beautifully termed her. The very scantiness of the
Biblical references to her are part of the reason many Protestants believe that
Catholics have blown her role out of all proportion. In fact, the
disparity between Mary's apparent lack of importance in the Biblical text, and
her enormous importance in the Catholic faith, is a good example of what Newman
called "the development of Christian doctrine"-- the fact that the
Catholic faith is something living, something that has grown and deepened
according to its own internal logic.
This post isn't going to be about Mary, directly. It's not even about
Catholicism. It's about a particular idea that haunts me and has always haunted
me. If it's not irreverent to do so, I suppose I could take the Blessed Mother
as a symbol or an illustration of it.
Pictures and statues of the Virgin Mary usually show her in the state that
Christan writers describe as 'recollected'-- her gaze downwards, composed,
reflective. She is "treasuring all these things in her heart",
One of the things I find most exhilarating about the Catholic faith is that it
is a vast well of living memory. The Blessed Virgin is an image of the Church,
and the Church has indeed been 'treasuring all these things in its heart' for
centuries upon centuries-- 'these things' being principally the words and deeds
of its Founder, but also the lives of the saints, the history of the Church,
private revelations such as Lourdes and Knock, and all the ten thousand other
elements that go to make up the Faith. (In the neat phrasing of the Catechism:
"Through Tradition, the Church, in her doctrine, life and
worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is,
all that she believes.")
My temperament, I sometimes think, is a combination of the mystical and the
rationalistic. And, having a rationalistic streak, the rituals of Mass and
prayer occasionaly seem ridiculous to me-- like the rituals of somebody with
obsessive compulsive disorder, who feels he must wash his hands a proscribed
number of times or something terrible will happen. Sometimes, I will hear the
priest's familiar words at the collect-- "let us pray"-- and I'll
think, "Weren't we praying already?". Or I will wonder, during
prayer, why I have to prompt God to do what He wants to do anyway-- or why I
have to ask somebody else (the Blessed Virgin or one of the saints) to prompt
him to do what He wants to do already.
Of course, there are good answers to all these questions-- they are all missing
the point. But I'm simply admitting that sometimes the rituals of Mass strike
me as....kind of silly (even as a deeper part of my soul cries out for them).
And it's been a criticism of Catholicism down through the centuries-- even
amongst other Christians-- that it pays to much attention to 'vain repetitions'
and outward observances.
But even the rationalistic part of my mind gives its approval to the more
mystical and devotional aspects of the Faith, in the end. Because it recognizes
that they work.
When they are done right-- or even partly right (because when have they
ever been done entirely right?)-- the routines and practices of the Faith
produce saints, and vocations, and Christian cultures, and sacred art, and all
the millions of ordinary Catholic sinners who hang onto the Faith and, hopefully,
live and die in friendship with the Lord, with some indefinite term in
Purgatory ahead of them.
When the outward observances are cast off, the Christian faith shows an
extraordinary tendency to simply evaporate, or to become something else. And
the sense of the sacred, and of human dignity, that (I would argue) cannot be
found apart from Christianity, evaporates along with it.
In the end, there is something deeply anti-rational about denying the
unconscious, and the emotional, and the mystical-- all those aspects of our
selves that need more than theology or philosophy to keep them alive, and to
The formula of Catholic devotion-- a formula that differs significantly from
culture to culture, and from age to age, but which would seem to have certain
constants-- seems to work. Who knows what a delicate balance of different needs
and aspects of our nature it speaks to?
Recently, in a Catholic newspaper, I read a sentence that went something like
this: "Protestants lost their mother four hundred years ago, and they have
been looking for her ever since." It made sense. To take devotion to
the Blessed Mother alone-- who knows what deep and specific needs for the
feminine and maternal it meets?
All this reminds me of that famous scene from The Karate Kid, where Mr.
Miyagi is teaching his young student Daniel karate through making him perform
various tedious chores such as waxing his car, for days on end. "Wax on,
wax off"! If you have somehow never seen the movie (spoiler coming!), the
big 'reveal' is that the repetitive hand motions Daniel is performing while
doing the chores turn out to be critical to his mastery of karate. But-- and
this is crucial-- he doesn't realise it while he is learning them. He has to
humbly trust in his master to get the benefit of the training.
I think the same is true of the system of devotion that the Catholic Church has
promoted down through the centuries. All those rosaries, pilgrimages, readings
of the Holy Office, liturgies, stations of the Cross, penances, feasts,
novenas-- all of this was not only keeping the Faith alive in the hearts and
souls of Catholics through the ages, but was actually deepening and developing
it. It was (and is) a kind of incubator of faith.
Indeed, the Church has always acknowledged this through the principle 'lex
orandi, lex credendi'-- the rule of worship (or praise) is the rule of faith.
The ordinary faithful have not only been learning through these devotions and
forms of worship, but also 'thinking' through them-- in a very special, gradual,
reflective, communal, almost (I acknowledge the paradox) unwitting way.
I find this hugely inspiring. It sets my imagination on fire to take some
sentence from the New Testament-- such as "we see now as through a glass
darkly"-- and think of the myriad times, in so many different lands and
centuries, it has been spoken, read, ruminated upon, written about, featured in
homilies, used in poetry and literature, and so on. Through the centuries, it
was entering ever more deeply into our collective soul and imagination, in many
In secular matters, too, this principle fascinates and inspires me. One of the
reasons I'm a traditionalist, or a conservative-- I might even say the major
reason-- is because I think almost everything of real value, from a social and
cultural viewpoint, is something that has grown up in this slow, accumulative,
impersonal, unconscious way.
By this I mean folklore, traditions, customs, nicknames, jokes, attitudes,
proverbs, idioms, language, national character-- indeed, everything that gives colour and character to life.
I think it is not only incidental but essential to these things that
they grow up slowly, cumulatively, when nobody is looking. You can't watch them
or inspect them come into being, any more than you can watch the grass grow.
Mary treasured all these things in her heart. I love the humility,
meekness and docility of that image. I imagine Mary pondering all the ways of
her Son-- the infinite wisdom that must have been evident in his every word,
deed and look. I imagine her letting them develop in her mind and soul-- not
passively, perhaps, but receptively.
Another way I might put the point (I'm turning from the religious to the
secular again) is to say that I am a traditionalist because I think society
needs to cultivate its collective unconscious, or sub-conscious, as well as its
rational mind and its rational institutions.
Ever since I have become aware of public debates, I have felt frustration that
political, social and cultural debates are conducted in purely rational terms.
I have felt that a crucial element was being left out. Perhaps 'irrational' is
not a good word for this, but I don't know what the best word is. Arational?
To take one simple example; chivalry.
In rational terms, chivalry doesn't really make sense. You can make a rational
defence of it, but it's rather tendentious and far-fetched. All the same,
chivalry seems to express and strengthen something deeply rooted in the human
soul. Men should show special courtesies to women not because women are weaker
than men, or because they are any better or worse than men, but because chivalry
satisfies some deep-seated expectation of the human soul. It preserves some delicate balance between the sexes, a balance far more
finely-struck than crude equality. (Of course, there is also a need for 'crude
equality', in matters like 'one man, one vote'. But it's not enough.)
I think C.S. Lewis came closest to expressing this whole idea, in his defence
of the English monarchy (which I have quoted again and again):
It would be much more rational to abolish the English monarchy. But how if,
by doing so, you leave out the one element in our state which matters most? How
if the Monarchy is the channel through which all the vital elements of
citizenship – loyalty, the consecration of secular life, the hierarchical
principal, splendour, ceremony, continuity – still trickle down to irrigate the
dustbowl of modern economic Statecraft?
It might be thought by all
this that I am harking back to everything that went out with the Industrial Revolution.
And I used to think so. I used to get very depressed at the loss (as I saw it)
of traditions, folklore, folkways, folk art, local identity, popular ballads,
and so forth. I thought that the world had been banalised beyond redemption by
mass production and television.
And, indeed, I still think that much has been lost. I do regret the loss
of parlour games and work songs and Miracle plays staged by craft guilds.
But I have come to accept-- something I struggled to accept for many years--
that folklore and tradition and custom not only survives, but thrives in
our age of television and the internet.
Very often, when I am (say) washing my hands in a public bathroom, and
listening to a Beatles or Abba or Bon Jovi song being played in the background,
I 'hear the grass growing'. I realise that the life of these songs are being
lived out in 'performances' in shopping centres and hotels and radio stations,
as surely as the life of the 'glass darkly' quotation from the Bible is being
lived out in homilies and Bible reading and so forth.
Recently, I read an excellent book called Shakespeare The Thinker by
A.D. Nutall. It was, as the title suggests, about Shakespeare's thought and
ideas, as refracted through his drama. But it was also about life in general,
and Professor Nutall threw a huge amount of his very wide learning and
observation into the mix. One thing that particularly stuck with me was his
mention of the limits of our vision. I mean, our literal vision. How far around
you can you see? What 'shape' is your field of vision? When we think about it,
we come to the conclusion that it's a kind of oval. But we can't see the
borders of our vision. It's an extraordinary thing. If we try to look at them,
they shift. They exist, but by their very nature we can't see them.
The same is true of the 'life' of a quotation, a custom, a tradition, a song, a
joke, a devotional practice-- or even something personal like a friendship or a
skill or a fascination. It belongs to the very nature of these things that we can't
see them happening-- nobody can see them happening. How do you chronicle the
moment when a film or a song becomes a true popular classic? You can't. It
happens over innumerable viewings or listenings by innumerable people. It seems
part of its very essence that it's not only unseen, but unconscious and not
deliberate--- over time, and cumulative, and collective. Wax on, wax off.
Paint the fence. Sand the floor.
But to return to the subject of the survival of folklore in modern life-- a
good example came up in my own life recently. I am on Facebook (feel welcome to
'friend' me), and for a long time I was an ardent opponent of 'memes'-- which
are, usually, a kind of running joke, usually taking the form of images or
short videos with captions. (I'm sure most of you know what a meme is.) I was
opposed to memes because I felt they were the opposite of wit. I would come up
with my own witticisms, thank you.
But eventually, I realised I was being a complete hypocrite and snob, and this
(extended) quotation from Chesterton will explain why:
There are in the modern
world an admirable class of persons who really make protest on behalf of that
ancient beauty of which Augustine spoke, who do long for the old feasts and
formalities of the childhood of the world. William Morris and his followers
showed how much brighter were the dark ages than the age of Manchester. Mr. W.
B. Yeats frames his steps in prehistoric dances, and joins his voice to
forgotten choruses that no one but he can hear. Mr. George Moore collects every
fragment of Irish paganism that the forgetfulness of the Catholic Church has
left or possibly her wisdom preserved.
There are innumerable
persons with eye-glasses and green garments who pray for the return of the maypole
or the Olympian games. But there is about these people a haunting and alarming
something which suggests that it is just possible that they do not keep
Christmas. It is painful to regard human nature in such a light, but it seems
somehow possible that Mr. George Moore does not wave his spoon and shout when
the pudding is set alight. It is even possible that Mr. W. B. Yeats never pulls
crackers. If so, where is the sense of all their dreams of festive traditions?
Here is a solid and ancient festive tradition still plying a roaring trade in
the streets, and they think it vulgar. if this is so, let them be very certain
of this, that they are the kind of people who in the time of the maypole would
have thought the maypole vulgar; who in the time of the Canterbury pilgrimage
would have thought the Canterbury pilgrimage vulgar; who in the time of the
Olympian games would have thought the Olympian games vulgar. Nor can there be
any reasonable doubt that they were vulgar. Let no man deceive himself; if by
vulgarity we mean coarseness of speech, rowdiness of behaviour, gossip,
horseplay, and some heavy drinking, vulgarity there always was wherever there
was joy, wherever there was faith in the gods. Wherever you have belief you
will have hilarity, wherever you have hilarity you will have some dangers. And
as creed and mythology produce this gross and vigorous life, so in its turn
this gross and vigorous life will always produce creed and mythology.
In disdaining internet
memes-- and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom, and Movember, and a million other
things-- I was really going in for 'chronological snobbery', even if it was the
opposite sort of 'chronological snobbery' to the sort C.S. Lewis complained
Added the next day: I was quite tired after writing all this, and it was bedevilled with formatting problems, which always seems to happen when I copy and paste long quotations. But even last night I was aware of a certain apparent contradiction in my argument, though I was too tired to tackle it. And this is it; why as a traditionalist conservative should I appeal to this whole phenomenon of the unconscious and cumulative and unobservable growth of institutions, traditions, customs etc. if I believe it just happens anyway, and if it continues to thrive in modern society? Isn't that an argument for just letting it happen? Isn't it an argument for liberalism or libertarianism, at least in the social and cultural field?
And my answer is no, it's not. This is how, for the most part, everything precious in social and cultural life comes into being. Even when there is conscious agency involved-- for instance, the institution of new holidays like Thanksgiving-- the institution or tradition has to take on a life of its own, or it doesn't really have a life at all. But this is no argument for not protecting our preserving or cultivating such things, once they exist. And my wider argument is that we should respect the unconsious meaning and social significance in such institutions, rather than always testing every institution by a standard of rationality. To take a rather silly example; there is a new James Bond movie out as I write this blog post, and there is a huge amount of hype and hoop-la about this. I've never really enjoyed the Bond films, and I will agree that they are a bit sleazy. But they seem to be a bona fide British tradition at this stage, and to speak to something in the British psyche, so I think they should be allowed a certain provisional respect. I would make the same defence of things such as the first-past-the-post electoral system in the UK, for the establishment of the Church of England, for the flag and national anthem of the Republic of Ireland (both of which I dislike on purely aesthetic grounds), for the practice of 'burning the guy' on Guy Fakes Night (which is often condemned as anti-Catholic), for Che Guevara t-shirts, for Ireland's 'drink culture', for the wearing of the Muslim niqab, and any number of other things. (I'm not saying that the fact that something has become a tradition or an institution should always outweigh other considerations, but I am saying it should be given considerable weight).
I will conclude this post-- which could be twenty times longer than
it is-- with a piece of shameless self-promotion. I am going to reproduce a poem
of my own, one that I wrote to express the very concept I've
been exploring in this post. Its last line, out of the 'vast extent of flimsy lines' of prose and poetry I have written, is one of the few in which
I actually take pride. It is called 'Where Life Has Been'. (Incidentally, 'till
the cows come home' is one of my very favourite phrases.)
On a battered
On a dog-eared deck of cards;
In football boots that have scored
Four thousand goals; on yards
Where generations have played and passed, like changing guards.
In a chipped Coronation mug
In a letter-filled biscuit tin;
In the teddy you used to hug
And the bed that you slept in
When life was a drama waiting to begin.
In the pounded, muddy path
That the cows come home along;
In a battle’s aftermath
Of ruin, and tale, and song;
In an empty dancehall dreaming of its scattered throng.
In an old, old story spoken
By a low fire’s dying light—
Of promises made and broken
Or old wrongs put to right;
That hushes the room, while the wind howls on a winter’s night.