Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Saturday, October 31, 2015

My Prayers to the Saints on All Saints Day

I've just been to All Saints' Day Vigil Mass. All Saints is one of my favourite solemnities (just as Halloween has always been one of my favourite holidays), and since I attended the Vigil on Halloween night a few years ago (after watching two horror movies in a row) I've felt that it's best experienced at that Vigil Mass, as evening draws in. Unfortunately, the priest who celebrated it tonight, though a good priest in many ways, shows almost no sense of awe and reverence towards the liturgy (he usually leaves the altar at the sign of peace, and he frequently interpolates his own words, invariably banal, to the missal). So he managed to drain much of the majesty out of the sacrament, but he couldn't hurt that wonderful reading, from the Book of Revelation:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.

I remember, when I was a kid, first reading the chorus of the hymn (and football chant) 'When the Saints Go Marching In', and being extraordinarily moved and excited:

When the saints go marching in
When the saints go marching in
How I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in.

I liked the sense of the cavalry arriving, the military atmosphere. I liked the idea of such supreme fellowship between people who had lived in such different times and places. I like the idea of the tide turning definitively, after centuries of going in the other direction.

The saints are such a wonderful gift. Once, in a Facebook post, I compared them to Christmas tree lights, with Christ as the plug. Above all, the saints prove that sanctity is possible, and comes in almost infinite varieties.

The words of G.K. Chesterton, as put into the mouth of a character from his mediocre novel The Ball and The Cross, are impossible to gainsay:

The Church is the only thing on earth that can perpetuate a type of virtue and make it something more than a fashion. The thing is so plain and historical that I hardly think you will ever deny it. You cannot deny that it is perfectly possible that tomorrow morning, in Ireland or in Italy, there might appear a man not only as good but good in exactly the same way as St. Francis of Assisi. Very well, now take the other types of human virtue; many of them splendid. The English gentleman of Elizabeth was chivalrous and idealistic. But can you stand still here in this meadow and be an English gentleman of Elizabeth? The austere republican of the eighteenth century, with his stern patriotism and his simple life, was a fine fellow. But have you ever seen him? Have you ever seen an austere republican? Only a hundred years have passed and that volcano of revolutionary truth and valour is as cold as the mountains of the moon. And so it is and so it will be with the ethics which are buzzing down Fleet Street at this instant as I speak. What phrase would inspire the London clerk or workman just now? Perhaps that he is a son of the British Empire on which the sun never sets; perhaps that he is a prop of his Trades Union, or a class-conscious proletarian something or other; perhaps merely that he is a gentleman when he obviously is not. Those names and notions are all honourable; but how long will they last? Empires break; industrial conditions change; the suburbs will not last for ever. What will remain? I will tell you. The Catholic Saint will remain,

This All Saints' Day homily by the wonderful Bishop Robert Barron (who has been compared to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, but who I would actually rate higher as a preacher) are also well worth listening to.

One of the things I like about the cult of the saints is that, as with so much in Catholicism, it leaves room for personality and individual sensibility. The gate may be narrow, but there still seems to be a million different ways of passing through it. There is such a galaxy of saints to choose from, that everybody can find a gallery of saints that is particularly their own.

And here are some of mine (I include those on the road to sainthood, as well as declared saints):

On this All Saint's Day, I pray first of all to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the greatest of all the saints, and the dearest love of so many saints. Blessed Mother, kindle in me an ever-deeper love of you, which is an ever-deeper love of your Son!

Next, I pray to St. Secundinus or Sechnall, from whom my name is derived. I know so little about you, namesake, but I know that you were one of the first missionaries in Ireland. I pray, through you, for the grace to join in the New Evangelisation of our beloved country.

I pray to the great St. Patrick, that I be given the same simple zeal for the Gospel that you show in your Confession, the short spiritual autobiography I have taken to reading every St. Patrick's Day. I pray to him, too, to watch over the soul of Ruadhan Pádraig, my child whose birthday would most probably have been St. Patrick's Day.

I pray to St. Finbarr, my confirmation saint, to draw me ever close to the life of the Church.

I pray to the Little Flower, whose intercession granted me the most important prayer of my life. I pray to her again, to unleash the sacramental graces that ensued from that prayer. I pray to her to intercede in every way for my beloved wife, who has a special devotion to her, and to whom her intercession led me.

I pray to St. Athanasius of Alexandria, to give me courage in the defence and proclamation of God's gospel.

I pray to St. Pope Pius X for the same.

I pray to Saint Gemma Galgani to give me an ever-deepening sense of 'Eucharistic amazement'-- a department in which I am horribly inadequate right now. I make the same prayer to Nellie Organ, the little Irish girl who showed such a devotion to the Blessed Eucharist that, too young to make her First Communion, she would beg those who had received 'Holy God' to kiss her (and who could even tell when someone had not received Communion). 

I pray to St. Bernadette Soubirous for humility and fixity of purpose.

I pray to St. Maximillian Kolbe for the grace to translate my good intentions into effective action, and for some semblance of his divine restlessness. I pray to St. Josemaria Escriva for the same. I pray to the Servant of God, Frank Duff (founder of the Legion of Mary) for the same-- and also to the Venerable Edel Quinn, the great Legion of Mary missionary.

I pray to the Venerable Matt Talbot, the former hopeless alcoholic and great Irish mystic and ascetic, to help me conquer my own addictions-- my addictions to various sins and vices.

I pray to G.K. Chesterton, for the graces of wonder, humility and courtliness-- and I pray that he is soon beatified and canonized.

I pray to St. Pappin, patron saint of Ballymun-- the suburb where I grew up, and where I have spent the great majority of my life-- to intercede for all its inhabitants, and especially to revive its old shopping centre, where only a handful of shops remain and which faces closure. I pray to him, too, to draw more Ballymunners back to church attendance.

I pray to John Paul the Great, to fill me with evangelistic zeal and to help me lead those I love (and, indeed, anybody else) towards the joy of the Gospel. I pray to him, too, to watch over the soul of my dear child Sadbh Treasa, whose birthday would most likely have been on his feast day, October 22nd.

I pray to Saint Edmund Campion for the reconversion of England, the country whose culture I have always loved so much.

I pray to Saint Robert Southwell, Jesuit martyr and writer of the beautiful poem 'The Burning Babe', to lead poets and artists towards a timeless beauty that reflects the eternal beauty and harmony of God.

I pray to Saint John Henry Newman to watch over all the students and staff of University College Dublin, the university he (indirectly) founded, and especially to guard religious and intellectual freedom there.

Oh God, forgive me if in these prayers I have misunderstood or poorly expressed the role of saints in interceding for us. If I have done so, please let all I have said be understood in a way more compatible with orthodoxy.

Oh Holy Spirit, send us more saints, and more vocations to the priesthood and religious life! Let every one of us fulfil our vocations as servants of God!

Oh sacred heart of Jesus, I put all my trust in you!

Monday, October 26, 2015

An Afterthought to Yesterday's Post

The post that I wrote yesterday evening made a fair stab at expressing something that is very dear to me. Indeed, in the last few months I have been circling around the same themes from rather different angles, in a whole series of posts-- the series on tradition and the series on my ideal Ireland, in particular.

Yesterday's post took quite a lot of time, not only to write, but also because I had very frustrating formatting problems-- every time I 'cut and paste' extended quotations, it seems to knock out the formatting, and strange things start happening to the font size of whole sections. This is incredibly aggravating, and I was quite fatigued by the time I finally got the thing properly formatted.

However, reading over the post, I still feel a sense of dissatisfaction. I missed something out.

I wrote about the importance I perceive in the unconscious and collective and cumulative aspect of social and cultural institutions-- whether that institution is as small as a joke or as big as national identity. I emphasised the need to cherish these 'non-rational' elements, and the danger (as i see it) in seeking to subject everything to a rationalistic critique-- though that danger might simply be that we create an insipid and rootless and banal world.

But there is another element I am missing out. It is the element of distance. By distance I am talking about distance in time even more than distance in space.

Although distance can sometimes be heartbreaking, I think it also has a deep beauty and poetry to it. Once again I must quote C.S. Lewis, and once again it is a passage I have often quoted before, one from Surprised by Joy:

The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it annihilates space. It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten. Of course if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little enough space there.

I think it's essential to everything that really elevates our social and cultural life that it is, as it were, spaced out. It allows breathing space.

Tradition is the best example of this. Take a tradition like Halloween. It only comes once a year. There are spaces in between-- spaces of a whole year. There is distance for the memory of each Halloween to mature and marinate in that time-- because we haven't been thinking about it, or 'looking at it'. And when we contemplate Halloween as an institution, the distance involved-- the sense of distance, of spaces in between-- seems to be part of its magic, its sense of the sublime.

What I am trying to get at it is well expressed in the proverb "distance lends enchantment to the view", but without the irony usually implied in it. Distance does lend enchantment to a view. Think of the sight of a cityscape, on a misty morning, with church spires here and there punctuating the sea of roofs.

Here I think of another memory, one I mentioned in my infamous 'Purple Notebook' series-- the memory of listening to my uncle singing "The Fields of Athenry" (a gentle and melancholy Irish song) in the bathroom, in his farmhouse in county Limerick. The great thing about my aunt and uncle's house was that they never had the television on except when they were watching it-- which was quite seldom. So I experienced there something which I rarely experienced in Dublin, growing up-- that is, silence, and all the little sounds that you only hear against the backdrop of silence. The sound of my uncle's voice echoing against the tiles and porcelain of the kitchen, and the awareness that we were surrounded by a small farm, and that even beyond that farm there was so much open space, gave me a delicious sense of distance-- of distances between, internal distances, the distances that makes something (whether it's a farm or a way of life) so much bigger inside than it seems from outside.

Another example to which I want to apply this idea of distance-- of 'distances between'-- is the reception of artistic works. Take Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, for instance, the Beatles' most famous album. When this came out, as I've read (and, indeed, as I've heard, from people who were around at that time) it was a massive sensation-- people felt that it was an epoch in itself, that it was going to change society. I've heard that some radio stations simply played it non-stop.

But, of course, although that initial sensation is part of the 'story' of Sgt. Pepper, but the impact and significance of the album only really emerged over time-- when the initial hype had gone away. Recently, I listened to 'A Day in the Life' (on vinyl) with my horror club, in one of the members' houses, on his top-of-the-range sound system. ('A Day in the Life' is possibly the most celebrated song on Sgt. Pepper. As for why my horror club was listening to it, sometimes we branch out beyond horror) We listened to it in silence, contemplatively. It seems to me that the song means so much more now, and has so much more of an 'aura' now, because its reputation has endured (and perhaps grown) in the years since its release. I first heard it in 2006, when I was lodging with a family in Stillorgan. I have, of course, listened to it periodically since then. And I feel that the intervals between those times are part of the experience of listening to the song, evaluating it, absorbing it. Everything that has happened in popular culture and history, since it was released, is also somehow present in the experience of listening to it. With any song or book of movie that you keep coming back to, the times that you're not thinking about it are as important as the times that you are thinking about it. The distances, the spaces between, are important.

Once again, my subject is getting away from me. So I want to finish up on one image that came into my head this morning, in the supermarket queue, and led me to write this 'afterthought'.

Many years ago, when I was a teenager with no experience of reading academic writing, I read an academic book about Yeats's poetry-- because I was a fan of Yeats's poetry, and I found this book in the library. I was quite taken aback (but quite delighted) at the denseness of the text, the seriousness and depth with which it analysed Yeats's words.

There was much concentration on his occult themes, and one thing that really struck me was a claim that the suits in playing cards-- diamonds, hearts, spades, clubs-- are derived from the suits in tarot cards, and that these in turn are based on the treasures of the ancient Celts, such as the 'Stone of Destiny' and the 'Spear of Lugh'.

Now, that may all be codswallop, and I might be getting it wrong anyway-- it doesn't matter. What matters is that suddenly the suits of playing cards-- diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades-- took on a depth and a meaningfulness that I'd never seen in them before. But this was only possible because I had spent so long looking at them, without really looking at them. They had already entered into my imagination, and they were latent there, through the repetitive and semi-hypnotic process of playing card games. While the analytic part of my mind was absorbed on the card game, the 'poetry' of the cards was entering into my imagination-- the same kind of 'two-pronged' action of active mind and contemplative mind that we experience when reciting the Rosary.

Now, if I'd been reading that book, and I'd never played cards, this idea wouldn't have aroused me so much. Spades, clubs, hearts and diamonds just would not have had the same resonance for me. Even if I knew that card games were very popular and I was told that these were the four suits, the sense of the sublime that I felt would not have been the same. I had to have the lived experience of playing card games over time, and with intervals (distance) in between the different games-- intervals when I wasn't thinking about card games or card suits at all.

It's the same with all symbols, from the Cross to a barber's pole. They derive so much of their power, so much of their sense of the sublime, from the frequency with which we have seen them-- and the fact that we weren't usually focusing on them or thinking about them, most of those times.

I'd better stop there. Perhaps I have expanded this subject far beyond what the reader's patience could bear. But I really did feel I had to add this idea of the 'distances between', to round off my previous post.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

"Mary Treasured All These Things in Her Heart"-- an Essay on Matters Both Sacred and Secular

(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", visibly.


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 satisfy them.


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 different ways.


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? Suprarational? Extra-rational?


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 about.


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 Monopoly board;
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.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Poem on the Last of the Ballymun Towers Coming Down

Ballymun was a high-rise housing estate built in the late sixties, dogged by social problems (drugs, vandalism, delinquency, etc.) and rebuilt in more recent years. All the towers and high-rise apartment blocks were either knocked down, blown up or disassembled. The last of the seven towers was slowly dismantled last month.

A Facebook page called Tribute to the Old Ballymun is filled with memories, nostalgia and laments for the old high-rise Ballymun. I posted this poem on it, written while the last tower was still coming down, and it was very popular. I started it in satiric vein but became more serious as I wrote it.

Remember I am writing it as a pastiche of folk song. If the metre and scansion is hobbledy, that is deliberate.

The red light was a beacon light on top of the towers, which glowed all night and day.

Miss Mary was a newsagents where I used to get my comics, Transformers and Eagle, every Thursday. The Perry's parrot was a clockwork parrot that would give plastic eggs containing gifts in return for coins. Biddy Early was an Irish witch of the twentieth century. (Really. Or, at least, reputedly. Some say she was more a faith healer who got a bad name.)
 
Written during the Demolition of Plunkett Tower

The last of the towers is coming down, coming down, coming down
The last of the towers is coming down, and there’s an old song ended.
The last of the towers is coming down, the jewel in the Corporation’s crown,
Old Ballymun is coming down and its last lift has ascended.

The last red light has flickered out, flickered out, flickered out,
The last red light had flickered out, that kept the planes from crashing.
I’d stare at its light as I lay in bed, half-hypnotised by its orangey-red,
But the Ballymun beacons are all gone out, as Time’s scythe goes on slashing.

The shopping centre is full of ghosts, full of ghosts, full of ghosts
The shopping centre is full of ghosts—the ghosts of poor Miss Mary
The Perry’s parrot, and all the rest, they wander the lonely malls, distressed,
All things of the past, like the glimmer man and poor old Biddy Early.

The roundabout is long since gone, long since gone, long since gone
The roundabout is long since gone, where the traffic moved forever.
I would gaze at it from the seventh floor, it seemed as eternal as sea and shore,
But the cars go round about no more, and won’t till the first of never.

The games on the hill are over now, over now, over now
The games on the hill are over now, and Time’s called us for dinner.
‘The next goal wins’ we would always cry, but now that the years have all gone by,
Nobody knows who scored that goal or who turned out the winner.

The last of the towers is coming down, coming down, coming down
The last of the towers is coming down, and a world is disappearing.
And between the long-vanished concrete walls, there echoes the decades-old children’s calls,
And long-ago skipping games fill the air, on the faintest edge of hearing.

Wedding Bells

I'd like to wish best wishes, and give assurances of my prayers, to a reader of this blog who is 'founding a domestic church' tomorrow. You know who you are! (I mean in the straightforward, descriptive sense. I'm sure you know in the deeper, existential sense as well, but that's not what I meant.)

I have been keeping you and your spouse-to-be in my prayers, and I was praying for you especially earlier, while saying my rosary in the little chapel in Dublin's Ilac shopping centre.

I hope it goes wonderfully, and only gets better from day one. 

Becoming an image of Christ's relationship to his Church is a big deal!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Jury Service

Today I served my third day of jury duty, on a case that will probably continue until the end of next week. Please pray to the Holy Spirit to give me judgement, understanding and impartiality.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

I Think I Have a Good Point

A Facebook conversation yesterday, on the prospects for conservatism (and the definition thereof) led me to think about this piece I wrote on this blog, in May of last year. I think it's one of the less idiotic things I've ever written. I even think it's true, and it express my own 'view' on whether we should be optimistic or pessimistic about the future. (I would say; pessimistic about the immediate future, optimistic in the longer term)

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Surprise of Liberty

One of my favourite memories from school-- and one that I mentioned in my infamous 'purple notebooks' series-- was a particular English class that, through the vagaries of the timetable, was sandwiched between two periods of P.E. (gym, P.T., sports, whatever you want to call it). For this particular class we were allowed to keep our sports gear on, rather than have to change back into our uniforms for one class.

Even at the time, I was surprised at the pleasure this gave me. It felt delightful to be sitting in an English class in our sports clothes. And this wasn't because I was opposed to school uniforms. As a matter of fact, I was always a fan of school uniforms in general and of our school uniforms in particular. But I liked the exceptional atmosphere, the feeling of lightness, and (incidentally) the combination of my two favourite classes.

This circumstance struck me as being somehow significant even at the time. It's taken almost twenty years to make me understand the significance.

And this is its significance; it seems to me a symbol of the importance of contrast, and of surprise, in human life and human society. And this importance seems to be very often overlooked.

I could never be a libertarian, or even a liberal, because I've always felt that both these philosophies tend to devalue, insofar as they succeed, the very thing they claim to prize the most.

In a society of maximised freedom, how would anyone enjoy freedom? How would anyone even notice freedom? Would freedom just become like water to a fish?

The argument might be made that the goal of freedom isn't freedom itself. The goal of freedom is human flourishing, or social justice.

I appreciate this argument, but...what can I say, except that it seems rather unsatisfying to me? Of course, like everybody else, I take many freedoms for granted and I would be outraged in those freedoms were called into question. I've never thought much about my freedom to idle, for instance, but I would be infuriated if some new social legislation required everybody to be gainfully employed every minute of every day, outside of recognised break times.

In this case, however, freedom is simply a means to an end, not something to be valued for its own sake. And I don't simply see freedom as a means to an end. Personally, I also prize the sensation of freedom-- something as definite and palpable as fresh air in your lungs, or the feel of sunshine on your skin.

And, to be honest, isn't this what most people are appealing to when they appeal to the idea of freedom, when they use freedom as a slogan or a battle cry? Are people in such cases really treating freedom as something akin to an unobstructed flow in a water pipe?

How do we protect freedom while also protecting the surprise of freedom, the sensation of freedom? That, to me, is the real question that should exercise liberals and libertarians, God bless their souls.

Of course, the question applies not only to freedom, but to everything. Europe has enjoyed peace for decades now; peace, at least, compared to to the horrors of two world wars. But do we enjoy it? Or do we simply take it for granted? And how can we learn to not take it for granted, to truly savour it? (God grant it continues!)

The same applies to national freedom and national cultures. Regular readers of this blog (poor heroic souls!) know I have often written on the subject of Irish national culture and my disappointment that, after independence, Irish national sentiment and national consciousness seemed to go into decline. Why can't we enjoy our national identity even when it's not being threatened? (Although it is certainly being threatened at the moment, though not in as obvious a way as when we could blame the British.)

The same is true of technology. Electricity is a wonder, but do we really appreciate that wonder? Do we appreciate the wonder of television, that portal to anywhere and everywhere? It may seem strange for me to be writing in such a way of technology, since I have so often written of its dangers and the precious things it can lead us to forget or to overlook. But we can forget and overlook the wonders of technology itself, too.

Indeed, I think the same temptation applies to absolutely everything. A few years ago I went to see the movie Tron: Legacy. The trailer made it look wonderful, with glowing, otherworldly visuals. (The story, of course, involves characters being trapped inside a computer game, or a computer world.) The film was a big disappointment, and I left early, but I do remember one conversation between a character who had grown up in the computer world and one who had only recently become trapped in it. The computer world native (a girl) is fascinated by what she's heard of the sky in the real world. The real-world character tells her she can't even imagine what it's really like.

Why do we so seldom look at the sky? Could there be any sight more spectacular?

As always, Chesterton was there before me:

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 may be assumed that I simply recommending 'mindfulness', the latest craze. (And indeed, why should I be so cynical about it? If 'mindfulness' is akin to what Chesterton and so many other like-minded thinkers have been urging on us, then surely it's a good thing, and the craze for it is a good thing.)

But I'm not just talking about an attitude. I can't help wondering if our political and social structures themselves could help to keep this sense of surprise vivid-- and, indeed, to what extent they already do, and to what extent we should preserve this tendency. Readers who have read my Bard's Apprentice novel, serialized on this blog, might recognize that this was one of the themes of the book. Years later, I'm still pondering it. I think the least I can say is that I very much doubt that the maximum amount of freedom is the optimal amount of freedom.