Saturday, December 16, 2017

In Defence of the Hippy Priest...Well, Not Quite

Here is another article from my Catholic Voice column, which appeared fortnightly for about two years in 2014 and 2015.

I'm posting this for two reasons. One is that I've been preoccupied with other things recently, and I want to keep the blog ticking over, so people won't stop coming back to it. The more relevant reason is that I've recently been encountering a lot of very bullish Catholic conservatives-- the sort who seem to delight in shocking other Catholics with their rigorourism, who strive to be as uncompromising as possible, and who are constantly denouncing modernism, liberalism and relativism.

I'm a conservative Catholic myself and I'm acutely aware of the ravages of liberalism, modernism and relativism in the Catholic Church. However, I think we have to guard against overreactions. And I think that, despite all its perversions, there's a core of merit in the philosophy of the "hippy priest". Bear with me...

A Dire Decade

I grew up in the Ireland of the nineteen-eighties. It was a pretty crummy period of Irish history by any standards—unemployment, emigration and the Troubles leap to mind. It didn’t really have much going for it culturally or intellectually, either. Even the triumphs of the Irish international soccer team lay in the future.

But nostalgia is irrepressible. My dawning consciousness of the drama of human life occurred against the backdrop of nineteen-eighties Ireland, and I can’t help getting ‘the warm fuzzies’ when I encounter (or simply remember) some of the images of that time—like the video montage over which RTE television used to play the national anthem every night, before the end of broadcasting.

As for the Irish Catholic Church of nineteen-eighties, it’s pretty easy to see that it was in a very sorry shape, despite high Mass attendance and the continuing influence that it enjoyed over social attitudes (overstated though that influence undoubtedly was, and is). It was the era of the ‘hippy priest’, not to mention the ‘hippy nun’.

Charlie Haughey, Irish Taoiseach of the eighties
Mary Kenny describes it very well in her book Goodbye to Catholic Ireland:

“The Irish bishops’ pastoral, from 1978 onwards, also emphasised justice as the primary virtue, although it is most infrequently invoked in the New Testament. The TrĂ³caire agency, widely supported by the clergy and the hierarchy, was set up to aid the poor in Third World countries, displaying a distinctly Marxist flavour in its crusades. Gone was the time when “Ireland’s spiritual Empire” emphasised the saving of souls and the need to bring Christ to the poor. Now the objective, according to TrĂ³caire’s advertising hoardings, was the defeat of white South Africa’s expansionist designs on Mozambique, and the moral wickedness of trading with Johannesburg at all…

“The letters columns of the newspapers were so full of denunciations from priests and nuns of the wickedness of President Reagan that one Jesuit wrote wondering why no one seemed to suggest saying prayers for the poor, misguided President’s soul…

“And throughout the 1980s there was a growing view among the more influential clergy that prohibitions—notably sexual ones—had been overemphasised in the past and that we should be less exercised by the peccadilloes of the flesh…by 1981 Father Ralph Gallagher was writing in praise of the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

It’s a familiar landscape to anyone over the age of thirty-five, I would guess.

Religious education suffered especially. Though self-quotation is an obnoxious practice, I’m going to indulge in it now. This is something I wrote elsewhere about my own religious education at a Catholic secondary school—in the early nineties rather than the eighties, admittedly:

“The religious instruction we received was poor, apart from our first year, where an old and intensely loveable nun taught us about the mysteries of the rosary, the Fatima apparitions, the story of Maximillian Kolbe, and other solid fare. After that, religion class became, more or less, a succession of inspirational videos (mostly feature films like Shadowlands and Not Without My Daughter) and pop psychology.”

Well, you get the picture, and I don’t think any readers of The Catholic Voice need convincing about any of this, anyway. The Catholic Church in nineteen-eighties Ireland definitely took a lurch towards the over-politicised, the worldly and the trendy. (Of course, it had been steering in this direction for some time already.) Sin was soft-pedalled. The call to repentance tended to be replaced by a message that God loved you just as you were. We were all going direct to Heaven.

Along Came the JPII Generation…

"Here I come to save the day...."
Things have changed. There are fewer Irish seminarians today, but they tend to be more orthodox than their predecessors—more orthodox than some of their professors, even. More recently ordained priests are much less likely to be ‘hippy priests’. Young people who take their Catholic faith seriously know they are swimming against the tide, and have quite consciously chosen the Holy Spirit over the spirit of the age. And the Irish bishops are showing an increasing willingness to speak out on those matters where Catholicism comes into collision with modern culture, rather than sticking with vague, safe denunciations of greed and consumerism. (The very week that I write this, the bishops issued a robust defence of marriage, ahead of the same-sex ‘marriage’ referendum next year.)

All of this is wonderful, and I rejoice in it. I have heard the term “JPII generation” being used quite a lot, along with the similar term “Generation Benedict”. I would definitely consider myself a card-carrying member of both generations, if such a thing were possible. Catholics who grew up, or who discovered their faith, during those two pontificates—if they were paying any attention at all—witnessed two very important things; one was the devastating consequences of the Catholic Church’s attempt to pander to secular society, while the other was the inspirational witness of two great counter-cultural Popes. The ‘JPII generation’ and ‘Generation Benedict’ are unlikely to repeat the mistakes and follies of the recent past— God be praised!

And yet, and yet, and yet….

And yet, as I mull over memories of my childhood and adolescence, and of the Church of that period, I can’t help feeling a sneaking regard for its ‘hippy Catholicism’, in some respects.

Images come to my mind. One particular image—one that made a profound impression on me, one that I’ve never forgotten—is from the day that I collected my Junior Certificate results. We collected them at our school, in the morning, and were let off for the rest of the day. I remember walking home, a little way behind a larger group of my classmates. And I remember a Catholic priest, in his clerical garb, standing on the Ballymun Road and shaking the hand of every school child who passed. I noted particularly that he did not ask any of them about their results. He just said ‘well done’ to every one of them in turn. He was plainly standing there on the street just so he could do that.

To a teenager beleaguered by endless talk of results, and college places, and the points race, the point he was making was loud and clear—“You are not your results, and your worth is not measured by success or failure, or by any exam.”

Was he a ‘hippy priest’? He may not have been, for all I know. But his little act of charity and encouragement seemed to be very typical of Irish Catholicism at that time. It expressed the same message that was dinned into us over and over in religious retreats in school that resembled encounter groups; on TV shows like A Prayer at Bedtime; in newspaper opinion pieces by priests with names like Fr. Eddie or Fr. Des; by posters in chaplain’s offices that showed sun-rays illuminating cornfields; by happy-clappy multilingual chants led by guitar-playing nuns dressed in cardigans and pleated skirts. The message was that God loved us with a love that was deeper than we could ever imagine, and that this love was utterly unconditional.

The problem was not that too much emphasis was placed upon this message. God’s love and God’s mercy can’t be over-emphasised. The problem was that other truths were neglected almost completely—such as the truth that, although God’s love is indeed unconditional, the darkness in man’s heart is such that we can (and do) deliberately shut ourselves off from His love—and that we are in peril of shutting ourselves off from Him for all eternity.

There was a certain naivety to it all, too—a naivety both charming and fatal. The mental world of the ‘hippy priests’ seemed to posit only two choices—there was ‘consumerism’ and ‘the rat race’ on the one hand, and there was Catholicism on the other. There was little or no call for apologetics, for the rational defence of God’s existence. There was no need to assert the truth of Catholicism over and against that of Evangelical Christianity, or Marxism, or Buddhism, or Mormonism, or atheism. Religion was essentially a matter of the heart, and the heart would not lead you astray—sure, didn’t everybody really believe in God and Christ deep down, anyway? As long was we were as gentle as doves, there was really no need to be as wise as serpents.

In all this, the hippy priests (and the hippy nuns, and the hippy religion teachers) were taking for granted Irish Catholicism’s spiritual and intellectual capital, the legacy that previous generations had built up at such tremendous sacrifice. It never seemed to occur to them that one day that capital might run out. But that is exactly what happened—and quicker than anyone could have anticipated.

Feel the Love

And yet, as I say, my purpose here is not to denounce this hippy Catholicism. My purpose is to render due honour.

One particular reparation that I feel I should make concerns my religious education. As mentioned, I have been publicly critical of it, and with good cause. I have complained of the lack of solid catechesis, the preoccupation with pop psychology, the reliance upon inspirational feature films.

I wrote those complaints several years ago. Since that time, I’ve realised how much my religious education at secondary school lingers in my memory, and how much I left out of my previous description.

For one thing, there was the charitable and community activities that it involved. I remember that we visited a local ‘special’ school, and had the students from the ‘special’ school visit us in turn. We played basketball together. I remember, too, we visited a local old folks’ home and spent an hour or so chatting to the people living there. (I remember how awkward and wretched I felt there—I was intensely shy—and I’m sure it did me a power of good.) I remember we spent several weeks before Christmas studying the issue of homelessness, and making a charitable collection for the homeless. Such lessons in practical Christianity can only be a good thing, and I think that this kind of social consciousness was also typical of ‘hippy Catholicism’.

Besides this, the very ‘inspirational feature films’ that I mentioned so disdainfully have, quite often, also lingered in my memory, and have had (I think) an enduring influence. We watched films such as Shadowlands, The Killing Fields, On Golden Pond, Rain Man, and Ironweed. The very fact that we were watching them with a moral purpose, in a serious way, impressed me deeply. Silly as it sounds, some part of me has never left that video screening room. And, once again, this seems to me typical of hippy Catholicism—there was a rage for relevancy. And these screenings did, indeed, impress upon me that contemporary life, pop culture and the ‘adult’ world all had a spiritual aspect to them.

So, if I am not holding up ‘hippy’ Catholicism as a model—and I am most certainly not—what is it that I think we should salvage from it?

This one thing, if nothing else—its fervent affirmation of Christ’s declaration that “the very hairs on your head are all numbered”. For all its failings, hippy Catholicism had a profound commitment to this idea that every human being is precious. Its imagination was gripped by it. And it did convey it very vividly.

I realise that many people think there is no need for such a doctrine today, that we live in an ‘I’m OK—You’re OK” society where self-esteem and self-congratulation are all-too-prevalent—that we need knocking down rather than building up.

I don’t agree. I believe that, though we may not be weighed down with a sense of sin, many of us are crushed by a sense of our own worthlessness, even by sheer self-hatred. I think the prevalence of suicide and self-harm attest to this, as does our mania for self-improvement and self-help books, as does the popularity of that awful word ‘loser’. I think our urge towards self-affirmation and ‘self-esteem’ actually points to this inner emptiness. And I think it is a malady that can only be healed, not by acquiring the body beautiful, or by ‘getting ahead’, or by self-improvement of any kind, but by the knowledge that we are truly created in the image and likeness of God, and that God loves us with a love that knows no bounds. Let us be no less fervent than any ‘hippy priest’ in proclaiming that truth to the world. It is needed now more than ever.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Regarding Cultural Christianity

One of the debates that keeps swirling around amongst Christians in our post-Christian society is what attitude we should take towards secularization. There are Christians who believe that secularization is a good thing, since power and influence are inherently corrupting, and it's better for Christians to be swimming against the tide than sunning themselves in the world's favour.

On the other hand, there are Christians (nearly all of whom are Catholic or Orthodox) who seem intent upon a restoration of Christendom. They formulate blueprints for a Catholic society, and don't seem in the least bit put out by the unlikelihood of these blueprints being actualised any time soon. Talking to them can be quite disorientating; for them, it seems, the High Middle Ages were only yesterday, and everything that's happened since is simply (to quote Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreations) a mistake.

I take a different view from both of these. I don't think secularisation is a good thing. But I don't pine for a restoration of Christendom, either.

I think the crucial distinction here is between religion itself and the social order. To welcome secularisation itself, or even to be indifferent to it, is to accept that human beings-- who are, as the Catechism tells us, inherently religious beings-- are frustrating their own deepest nature. That can't be good, can it?

On the other hand, I see no reason to believe that the social order which accompanied a particular era of Catholic history is replicable in today's world-- even if every single person in a given society were to become Catholic. The realities of technology, the economy, and the international order have changed drastically.

Yes, there is such a thing as Catholic social teaching, but (as Pope Benedict put it in Caritas in Veritate) "The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim to interfere in any way in the politics of states.” Thinking in terms of a Catholic social order is, I think we can say, a mistake. Rather we should think in terms of the Catholic principles (solidarity, subsidiarity, human dignity) which can pervade any number of different social orders.

And surely it's a good thing for these principles to pervade society? Accepting that Christians usually fall short of their ideals, even egregiously so, surely any attempt to live up to that ideal is good in itself? For instance, it seems silly to argue that Christianity had no buttressing effect on the institution of marriage, throughout the centuries it dominated European and American society. And the same applies to abortion, euthanasia, indecency, and so forth.

As well as this, I think it's fair to say that Christianity has an ennobling effect on culture. Even the darkest product of Christendom, such as Matthias Grunewald's depictions of the Crucifixion, never descend to the depths of nihilism and cynicism seen in post-Christian art and entertainment.

From a purely spiritual point of view, I think it's also desirable for Christianity to pervade society as much as possible. The argument is often made that bad Christianity will drive people away from religion altogether. I've seen examples of that. But I believe that it's much more important that people should hear about God, Jesus, the soul, sin, grace, and all the other concepts of Christianity. And not only hear about them as one piece of general knowledge amongst many others, but with all the prestige and grandeur which attaches to those concepts in a Christian society.

The parables and words of Jesus are so powerful that they tend to take hold in the imagination, if they are given sufficient opportunity. This is why even militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan often proclaim themselves Christians, in a non-supernatural sense. It explains, too, how even an anti-Christian philosopher such as Friedrich Nietzsche or an anti-clerical author such as James Joyce can draw on Christian themes and imagery so extensively.

The more Jesus is a presence in any society, I believe, the more likely it is that any given person will be drawn to him, and to his Church.

For all these reasons, I am a defender of cultural Christianity. It's not real Christianity, of course, but it's an atmosphere amenable to real Christianity. And its loss is a great loss.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Novel Suggestion

Early this year, I got rather absorbed in writing a novel, a novel with a religious theme. I wrote about six or seven chapters, I think. I was very enthusiastic about it at the time, but then I began to doubt anyone would want to publish it or read it.

A friend who kindly read the chapters as I wrote them was also enthusiastic about it. In fact, he's been strongly urging me not to abandon it-- which is very nice of him.

I'd like to know what other people think. If anyone feels like giving the existing chapter a read, just get in touch with me at

And no worries if you don't. I know people are very busy and have lots to read. I won't be bothered in the least if nobody takes me up. It's just a thought.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Dying of the Light

Recently, on the Irish Conservatives Forum, there's been a bit of discussion about the spiritual life of England-- more particularly, how healthy it is, whether it still exists, and whether (assuming it's moribund) it has any hope of revival.

This is an article I wrote for the Catholic Voice some years ago. (I jumped when I re-read the reference to being thirty-six!) It was written for an Irish readership, so there are some Irish cultural references that non-Irish people are unlikely to get. But not many. I'm not sure why I listed I'm Alan Partridge among shows I've never watched, since I've often watched it and know some scenes almost off by heart. A slip, no doubt.

My writing style grows more fastidious with the years-- sometimes I wince when I read something I've written even as recently as this. I would never talk about a "trunkful" of anything now, unless it was actually filling a trunk.

The Light of Faith

“Once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim”. These beautiful words are taken from Lumen Fidei, the last encyclical written by Pope Benedict XVI (with some finishing touches from Pope Francis). I believe in their truth with all my heart. I see evidence of it everywhere. And I think it’s a point that Christians should make insistently and forcefully, in our efforts to re-evangelise the Western world.

Pope Emeritus Benedict has often written of the boredom that afflicts modern man when he rejects God, and when he rejects the transcendental dimension of life. (From his Introduction of Christianity: “In the leaden loneliness of a God-forsaken world, in its interior boredom, the search for mysticism, for any sort of contact with the divine, has sprung up anew.”)

‘Boredom’ is a strange word to use, perhaps, in describing a godless society. We tend to reach for words like ‘emptiness’, or ‘meaninglessness’, or ‘alienation’, instead. Perhaps, in envisaging a society that has turned its back on God, we picture neon lights and nightclubs and dancing girls, or similarly heady images. But boredom? Surely not boredom.

And yet, I think that Pope Benedict—profound and original thinker that he is—has got it exactly right, in this instance as in so many others. When a society rejects God, it becomes a boring society. And not only boring, but banal. The banality of post-Christian society is perhaps the worst thing about it. And if not the worst, it’s certainly the most pervasive.

A post-Christian society is boring, and bored, because only the sacred and the otherworldly can satisfy the human capacity for awe and wonder.

I am thirty-six years of age. I grew up in a post-Christian society. I never experienced a world where Christianity was simply assumed to be true. Matthew Arnold had written about the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “sea of faith” even before my grandparents were born. (Like King Charles II, God has been “an unconscionable long time dying”.)

So I cannot claim to have witnessed Ireland’s transition from a Catholic to a post-Catholic nation. But I suppose I came in at the end, and caught the last act of the drama. And it seems glaringly obvious to me that even the difference between a residually Christian society (like the Ireland of the nineteen-eighties) and a predominately secular one (like the Ireland of today), is quite substantial.

Take any example. Take the most trivial example you can think of. Take, for instance, the difference between The Late Late Show of Gay Byrne and The Late Late Show of Ryan Tubridy. Or take Charlie Haughey and Garrett Fitzgerald, as opposed to Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny. Or the comedian Dave Allen as opposed to Tommy Tiernan.

Now, these are all deliberately trivial examples, and I’m certainly not expressing wild enthusiasm for any of the first set. But isn’t there a perceptible decline in class, in depth, in gravitas, even here? Isn’t even a Church-bashing comedian like Dave Allen, coming from a more Christian context, a lot classier than a Church-bashing so-called comedian like Tommy Tiernan? Isn’t even a liberal like Garrett Fitzgerald, reared in a strongly Christian atmosphere, more intellectually serious than a political opportunist like Enda Kenny?

I firmly believe that even this small difference—as well as the much greater difference between the Ireland of W.B. Yeats and John McCormack and Walter Macken and all those other luminaries, and the Ireland of today—comes down to Christianity. “Once the light of faith goes out, all other lights begin to dim.” A Christian culture is saturated with ideas of the sacred, of the sublime, of the eternal, of mystery. Even the village atheist (and Ireland certainly had her share of village atheists) can’t help absorbing these ideas—and reflecting them.

But, though the banality of secularism has entered deeply into the soul of Ireland, I would venture to say that the process is far from complete. The sun may have set but the evening light lingers in the sky. I think we have to look across the Irish Sea—to the country that Matthew Arnold was writing about in his poem ‘Dover Beach’, which I quoted above—to see the banality of secularism in its full glory.

There’ll Always Be an England?

But before I start writing about England, I want to make one thing clear. I have been an anglophile all my life. I can’t remember a time when my imagination was not stirred by the land of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, P.G. Wodehouse, Lord Tennyson, John Betjeman, Hammer horrors, Carry On movies, Keith Waterhouse and Tom Sharpe. Even the rugged beauty of place-names like Sussex and Brompton and Halifax speak to something deep in my soul.

So I take no pleasure at all in the claim that I am going to make here; that the soul of England has perished, and that this is because it has so completely rejected its Christian heritage.

The Church of England had to close 1,500 churches between 1969 and 2002. Only about six per cent of the UK’s population go to church. Back in March, The Daily Mail reported that just 800,000 people attend Church of England services on an average Sunday. This in a nation of fifty-six million souls. It’s true that attendance is higher amongst Catholics, and that Pentecostal and Evangelical churches are growing. But these have made very little impact on the surrounding culture.

The idea has even grown up that England is an intrinsically irreligious nation, that the muddle-headedness of Anglican theology is simply the proper spirituality of a people who hate dogma and are embarrassed by anything as earnest and emotive as religion.

A funny notion, really, for a nation whose Civil War, only a few centuries ago, was close to being a war of religion; for the land of St. Thomas More, St. Thomas Beckett, John Milton, Thomas Cranmer, John Wesley and Guy Fawkes, The Canterbury Tales and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

I cherish this refrain from a medieval English drinking song: “Bring us in good ale, and bring us in good ale, for our blessed Lady’s sake, bring us in good ale.” In those few words are expressed the deeply Christian soul of ‘Merrie England’.

So how can I say that the soul of England is now dead? For one thing, because it’s not just me saying it. In recent times, there has been almost an industry of books lamenting the death of England. The Abolition of Britain by Peter Hitchens is the best I’ve read, while England: an Elegy by Roger Scruton follows close behind. Similar titles (which I haven’t read) include The Death of Britain? by John Redwood and Anyone for England? by Clive Aslett.

If you want to see evidence of the death of England, just turn on your television and tune in to the BBC or any other British channel. There is a deeply depressive, nearly nihilistic undertone to almost every broadcast. I see this in many of the British shows which (I hasten to add) I don’t watch, but snippets of which I’ve seen. Shows like The Inbetweeners, I’m Alan Partridge, Teachers and The Royle Family reflect such a bleak view of human nature and of human life that it’s staggering. Characters are rude to each other as a matter of course. Everybody seems to be miserable all the time. Most of all, nobody seems to believe in anything—not just in God, but in anything.

This is true even of good English TV shows. I watched the comedy series Rev, which follows a Church-of-England vicar who shepherds a vanishingly-small inner-city congregation in London. The show is notable for taking religion seriously, but it’s almost relentlessly downbeat. The reverend Adam Smallbone’s best friend is a down-and-out who smokes cannabis (Adam sometimes joins him) and reads pornographic magazines. The handful of people who turn up to church are eccentric and directionless. The Archdeacon who makes Adam’s life a misery is a snobbish careerist. London is presented in the dingiest and grungiest light possible.

Or take the very successful show The Office, which was a ‘mockumentary’ set in a paper office in Slough, and won a trunkful of awards. I loved it when it came out, but since I’ve become a fan of the later American version, I can’t watch the English version anymore. The American Office is more or less upbeat, warm-hearted and life affirming. The English Office is almost sadistically bleak. I believe that the difference is down to the fact that America is a Christian country and England is not.

Contemporary English entertainments that do take a romantic view of life tend to be either set in the past—the endless proliferation of costume dramas and period detective mysteries—or else in an imaginary world that draws on the past, such as the Harry Potter series, which owes so much to Enid Blyton-style school stories of yesteryear.

No More Beer and Sandwiches

I see the same absence of any kind of deep belief, any source of unabashed idealism, when I read the opinion pieces of English newspapers. Any discussion of religion, or of English national identity, or of any other ‘high-flown’ subject, is inevitably conducted in an infuriatingly flippant manner. Public intellectuals like Terry Eagleton, Will Self and Simon Schama seem to wear a perpetual simper, and to trade in an all-embracing irony.

It was not always thus. I was deeply surprised, not long ago, when I learned that a ‘National Festival of Light’, in protest against the permissive society and the increase of sex and violence in the mass media, had been held in England in 1970. Its leading figures included Malcolm Muggeridge, Mary Whitehouse and Cliff Richard. Amazingly, almost half a million people joined its rally in London, and a hundred thousand people took part in smaller rallies around the nation. Four decades later, this is impossible even to imagine.

It isn’t just Christian idealism that seems to have disappeared from English life. Where is the beer-and-sandwiches socialism of the working men’s clubs and the night schools? Where are all the port-drinking, Punch-reading High Tories? What vision of human life animates English souls today? None that I can think of. And, in their absence, the nation seems to have sunk into an atmosphere of all-pervading cynicism at worst, of ironic world-weariness at best.

It’s true that a certain gloom has always been a part of the English psyche. Eeyore, of the Winnie the Pooh stories, is a typically English creation. English culture, from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf to the paintings of L.S. Lowry, has always shown a rather Eeyorish streak.

But the point is that, for a millennia and a half, this was offset by the joy of the Christian Gospel. In every culture it meets, Christianity takes whatever it encounters, purifies it, and ennobles it. The sun of Christianity, shining on the soil of England, gave the world the poetry of William Blake, the paintings of John Constable, the ghost stories of M.R. James, the fussy vicars of Anthony Trollope, and ten thousand other cultural treasures besides. But now—in my opinion, at least—that England is dead and gone. And our own nation seems to be well along the same path.

Truly, when once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim.

Monday, December 4, 2017

A Christmas Carol by George Wither

In putting together a library display of Christmas books, I came across this seventeenth century Christmas carol by George Wither. This is the version as I found it, but I see from the internet that the carol itself is much longer (too long, I'd say).

It's full of the spirit of "Merrie England" that I love so much. Also, I'm a fan of lyrics and poems that end with the same line, or a variant thereof, in each stanza.

Here it is. I hope some readers like it.

O, now is come our joyful Feast;
Let ever man be jolly.
Each room, with Ivy leaves is dressed.
And every Post, with Holly.
Though some churls at our mirth repine.
Round your foreheads Garlands twine,
Drown sorrow in a Cup of Wine.
And let us all be merry. 

Now, all our Neighbours Chimneys smoke.
And Christmas blocks are burning;
Their Ovens, they with baked-meats choke.
And all their Spits are turning.
Without the door, let sorrow lie:
And, if for cold, it hap to die,
We’ll bury ’t in a Christmas Pie.
And evermore be merry. 

Now, every Lad is wondrous trim,
And no man minds his Labour.
Our Lasses have provided them,
A Bag-pipe, and a Tabor.
Young men, and Mayds, and Girles & Boyes,
Give life, to one anothers Joys:
And, you anon shall by their noise
Perceive that they are merry. 

The Client now his suit forbeares,
The Prisoners heart is eased,
The Debtor drinks away his cares.
And, for the time is pleased.
Though others purses be more fat.
Why should we pine or grieve at that ?
Hang sorrow, care will kill a Cat.
And therefore let ’s be merry.'

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Triple Standard

In the past few weeks, my daily reading has been guided by what I call my "triple standard" (the term just popped into my head). This is a resolution to read a bit of Irish language material, a bit of poetry (especially long poetry), and a bit of Scripture every day. It's actually not that hard and I've usually fulfilled this aspiration by noon.

I'm endlessly fascinated by the idea of going against the tide. "Fascinated" isn't even a strong enough word; electrified, transported, captivated, might be better words. There is something about going against the tide, or walking uphill, or fighting against superior odds, that seems to me like a sort of primordial drama. After all-- as I have said in my posts on contrarianism-- every single moment of life is a victory against the inertia of death. Every heartbeat is a sort of contrarianism. (I've sometimes wondered if growing up hearing stories of the 1916 Rising also influenced me in this. Irish people of a certain background grew up thinking that execution by firing squad was the happiest possible ending to a life.)

So, in these three literary pursuits, it's "going against the tide" more than anything else that motivates me.

Catholics are notorious for their reluctance to read the Bible. As is well know, it was a sin punishable by excommunication for a layman to even open the Bible until the Second Vatican Council. The reluctance has lingered. Whereas Baptists and Presbyterians can rattle off chapter and verse from Scripture, Catholics prefer to read Thomas Merton or G.K. Chesterton.

OK, that's an exaggeration, but there's an element of truth to it. The Bible is a difficult book to read. It's repetitive, laden with genealogies and lists of rules, and dense. This is especially true of the Old Testament, and it's mostly the Old Testament I struggle with. I'm fairly familiar with the New Testament, but there are whole tracts of the Old Testament which are more or less terra incognita to me.

And yet, this very denseness and difficulty is part of the appeal. The Bible has always captured my imagination, even when I was non-believer. A line from the Bible seems more potent than any amount of words from most other sources. I recently mentioned my trip to Kingston-upon-Hull in Yorkshire, some ten years ago. I visited an enormous aquarium, which contained a bewildering variety of marine life. And yet the thing that struck me most were the words over the entrance: "And the spirit of the Lord moved over the waters." Even at the time, this struck me as extraordinary. When I used the word "potent" earlier, the association with liquor was entirely appropriate. I think of Scripture as fire water. In fact, I think the same of poetry.

Here's another example of the potency of Scripture: many years ago, I was watching the classic horror film From Beyond the Grave, with my father. One scene, set in a bedroom, shows the framed text: "The wages of sin are death". "But the gift of God is eternal life" said my father. I was impressed at the way the Scriptural quotation gave the scene such gravitas. And it works the other way, too: when I read the Bible, or hear it read, the fact that so many lines and passages are familiar from quotation and allusion gives it an added power, as though it is the cradle of our entire culture.

Another thing that impels me towards the Bible is a sadness and shame at the loss of Scriptural knowledge in our culture. You only have to read a little to notice this. In fact, I think the decline is ongoing. I remember reading this joke in a recently-published kid's joke book when I was a boy: "Jenkins, who knocked down the walls of Jericho?" "I don't know, sir, but it wasn't me".

I suppose I can say that I want to read more Scripture to push against secularisation, I want to read more Irish to push against globalisation, and I want to read more poetry to push against rationalisation.

Of my "personal traditions", poetry is older than everything except horror. I've been an evangelical poetry lover since my teens, and I've resented the tyranny of prose for much of that time. As I return to reading poetry in a disciplined way, this old feeling revives. We should always be somewhat ashamed of prose. Poetry is literature; prose is good enough for instruction and entertainment. Honestly, is a novel much better than a game show as a form of diversion? What annoys me especially is novels (especially detective and thriller novels) that take their titles from poems. That kind of putting on airs is odious.

Admittedly I'm being provocative here, but that doesn't mean I'm kidding. And I could expand my argument to a more general level. My whole traditionalist conservative outlook is really nothing more than the desire to make society less prosaic and more poetic.

As for the Irish language, I wrote a lot about that last year. I want to be able to say legitimately that Irish is a part of my daily life. Every now and again, I feel such a wave of indignation at its decline that I feel like refusing to ever use English again. I realise even as I feel it that I will do no such thing. Irish is one of those causes that can't be given up, no matter how impossible its revival seems. Perhaps the tide of history will change some day.

In any case, my triple standard gives me a pleasant feeling of pushing against the tide, on three fronts, every day.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Craving for Solemnity

On this blog, and in my writing in general, and indeed in my life in general, I keep coming back to one particular theme, from many various angles. It's not my only theme but it's a pretty prominent one, and it runs through all the others.

Out of one thousand, six hundred and twelve posts on this blog, the one that means the most to me (other than my poem to Michelle) is this one, A Short History of my Priggishness.

In that post, I expressed something that has haunted me for as long as I can remember; a life-long craving for the solemn, the elevated, the refined, the special, the poetic. Not just in my life, but in the life of society in general. I'm going to use the phrase "solemnity" even though it's not exactly what I mean. It's only part of it.

Another post where I touched on the same theme was this verse-essay, In Praise of Solemnity, which got quite a good response.

This craving for solemnity is one of the reasons I'm a cultural nationalist, and a romantic nationalist. I elaborate on that in this post.

This craving for solemnity makes me bonkers for tradition, since even fun traditions are satisfyingly solemn. I've written at great length about my love of tradition on this blog, but especially in this series: here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Since, in our post-modernist society, solemnity is often dismissed as "kitsch", and tack is often celebrated as ironic, I wrote a blog post on kitsch and tack, defending the former and blasting the latter.

My little purple notebook is full of moments where I glimpsed the kind of world, or the kind of atmosphere, I crave.

My post on the phrase "the dark side of the moon", and everything this evokes for me, explores the same territory.

The post I recently wrote about my teenage hankering for the fantasy city of Amber is, perhaps, my latest expression of this theme. I'm sure there are many more I've missed, though.

A friend once asked me how, given my love of solemnity, I'm not a devotee of the Latin Mass. I've puzzled over this, and come up with the answer: Mass is already the most solemn thing in modern life, even if it's the Ordinary Form. It's the most solemn thing by far. I don't need Mass to be any more solemn. That would be bringing coals to Newcastle (or sand to the beach, as Americans say). I need the rest of life to be more solemn.

This theme has been on my mind recently, as I've been reading long poetry-- Idylls of the King by Tennyson and Night Thoughts by Dr. Edward Young.

When I read poetry, it makes prose seem so flaccid to me. I become somewhat disdainful, not only of prose, but of everything prosaic. I want all writing to strive towards poetry, and all life to strive towards the poetic. The existence of Terry Pratchett novels, hen parties, and TV shows like Top Gear seems almost unbearable.

This craving for solemnity isn't just directed towards the outside world, though. I yearn to embody this in myself, and indeed I do try.

What value has all this? I'm not sure. This craving leads me towards the sacred, so it seems valuable in that regard. Whether the more aesthetic aspect has any value is not something I can really argue impartially. I'd like to think it does. In any case, this craving is so deeply-rooted in me, I imagine it's impossible to quench, even if I wanted to.