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 We lost her at the phase when I was at my most awkward, inhibited and withdrawn.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.


  1. I like this poem and post of yours best of all Maolsheachlann. I think it was the mention of biscuit tins full of letters wot done it. It has me thinking thoughts now, especially since I had to ask what the mini machine was the other day (ipod shuffle was the answer).

    Shared memories, like your Chesterton's white fence, need making, cultivating and renewing. There is a point where we have to recognise the difference between vulgar as indecency and vulgar as in the common people. The latter is noble, spotting and acting on the difference is where I think the problem lies, but shying away from it all is not the answer. My go to verse is Philippians 4.8 on this matter but I really have to fight my old skool tendencies here. It's such a sensible verse from St. Paul.

    Speaking of traditions that shouldn't be gone like the Maypole, I still think the council are a bunch of curmudgeons for banning bonfires this weekend coming, those memories are treasures of my own. I don't think I ever felt as safe and secure as a child (and was quite aware of it) as I was when we all, kiddos, our families and the old people buzzed and chatted and got quiet and snoozy around the bonfire, and the Guards and/or Firemen came and nodded to the dads and rambled off seeing we were grand. Nobody will be gathering around the radiators after they fill their bags with sweets this weekend. Communities need shared memories to stay loyal to one another. Stupid Busybody Council.


    1. Well, if it really IS safe, then I am definitely all for it. I tend to be a bad judge of such things. Halloween might be my favourite time of year-- though Christmas is hard to beat-- and I have such magical memories of it, but I always think that one seriously injured child (or adult) outweighs all those considerations. I guess I am so romantic in temperament that I have a kind of instinctive check on my romanticism now. I suspect that when I start talking about that famous Halloween party I attended as a child, at this stage, the very birds of the air and creeping things that creepeth on the ground get away from me as soon as they can.

      Thanks for your very kind words! Phillipians 4:8 is certainly a good guide, but like so much in the Bible, it leaves such a latitude for interpretation....

  2. Goodness, thank you for the dedication. I haven't ever received a dedication before, so I'm not sure quite what I am meant to say! I feel very honoured.

    Just as Sinéad said above - what you say is tremendously interesting. It is very uplifting to think that in fact all customs and all devotion - which do sometimes feel cumbersome and mechanical - will all turn out to make sense later on, in the next world if not in this. I suppose you could say that it is rather like childhood? Much of what adults teach children makes no sense to them, and feels artificial and boring and pointless until they grow up. Yet children also yearn for adulthood and indeed pretend to be adults in grown-up roles. They just don't make the link between hard practice and the longed-for ideal, as we don't. This is not to say that devotion is simply 'playing at living in heaven' - perhaps children, intensely serious as they often are when playing, are not really merely 'playing' either.

    I find the blurring of the line between sacred and secular in this essay entirely natural. Cultural things treasured in the heart might be forgotten more easily because they necessarily have less value than sacred things. But culture properly understood (I think) is at least a mirror of sacred things, because it is the fruit of mankind's effort to be 'co-creator' with God. (Somewhere there is an address of Paul VI to artists to this effect).

    I also agree that the folkloric instinct is alive and well - memes, yes, and flashmobs (a terrific idea), and young people putting their own renditions of pop songs - just them and a guitar - online. But I can't suppress my curmudgeonliness and think that there is an argument to be had about the quality of the raw material of inspiration. How good are those pop-songs, for instance? A lot of them are great, but too many of them are, in my view, far uglier and meaner-hearted than the folk-songs and light music that preceded them. (The other difficulty with modern music is that there is always a 'canonical', authoritative version, whereas folk-songs were altered and developed by every generation; even light orchestral music permitted a different interpretation). Mankind will always spin customs and beauty out of whatever raw material there is to hand, but can't we make the raw material as good and beautiful as we can?

    An almost identical thing could be said about the architecture. I really enjoyed your last post, the poem about the demolition of the last Ballymun tower. It rather proves your point about the survival of folklore that your satirical beginning turned into a proper folk-song that I think could join the ranks of beautifully sorrowful Irish songs. And anything is immediately sanctified when a human being calls it 'home'. Yet I can find nothing to say in favour of 1960s tower-blocks, and struggle to understand how their architects could expect people to live in them.

    I suppose I also feel a self-contradictory urge to stop anything I consider 'unworthy' from entering society, because, once it does so, it is only a matter of time before it becomes hallowed by custom... and then I would object myself to its removal!

    Not sure whether any of this makes sense. I will stop now before this becomes a post in itself, and then I would have to dedicate it to you!