Friday, November 17, 2017

Keeping Jesus in the Foreground

The priest in UCD gave a good homily at Mass today. The gospel reading was from St. Luke, "People were eating and drinking, marrying wives and husbands, right up to the day Noah came into the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all." He said that we were always in danger of losing sight of the Christian mission, which was "simple, but challenging in its simplicity."

This is the paradox that strikes me again and again when I read the lives of the saints. They were men and women who were focused on Jesus all the time. It sounds so simple.

I'm trying to write this blog post in a way that doesn't resort to platitudes, and I've been hesitating over my words. I mean something very specific here. Everyone would agree that Christians should always be focused on Jesus, but "keep your eye on the ball" is rather trite. I'm trying to convey a particular aspect of this general truth, I suppose.

Here is the best way I can think of putting it: the fall from Christianity, whether in individuals or in societies, always seems to begin by Christianity being pushed in the background and something else taking the foreground. I suppose the example we're all most familiar with is the religious order that becomes so besotted with "social justice", it eventually ceases to be Christian in any meaningful sense. But this is a peril for conservatives as well as liberals. Conservatives are in danger of making an idol of nationalism or some other conservative cause.

(I would insist, however, that there is much, much more danger to Christianity from left-wing politics today, than there is from right-wing politics. I was having this debate on Facebook recently, when someone was posting about the dangers of the Alt Right to Catholicism. I acknowledged the Alt Right were a danger, but that it was dwarfed by the danger of the left. As I said: the Alt Right has not infiltrated bishops' conferences, religious orders, Catholic charities, and Catholic universities. It would be perverse if fear of the Alt Right drove Catholics even further towards the liberal left!)

Funnily enough, this gradual drift from genuine Christian zeal can be well expressed by a passage of poetry I read today, from Idylls of the King. At this stage of the narrative, King Arthur has noticed that the idealism of Camelot has begun to fade, and complains to Sir Lancelot of his knights' increasing apathy:

The foot that loiters, bidden go,—the glance
That only seems half-loyal to command,—
A manner somewhat fall'n from reverence—
Or have I dream'd the bearing of our knights
Tells of a manhood ever less and lower?

I've noticed, myself, that when I'm reading about some (dead) person who was a Catholic, my question is always: "How much did their Catholicism matter to them?". Did they go to Mass? How often? Did they read the Bible? Did they often write or speak about the Faith? Was their Catholicism part of their daily life or something in the background?"

Now, I'm very well aware that someone could go to daily Mass, spend all their time participating in Catholic organisations, read five Catholic papers a week, and still be a terrible Catholic. I'm always haunted by the fear that God will tell me: "I never knew you" on the Day of Judgement.

But the opposite doesn't seem to be true. I've never heard of a saint or a great Christian for whom Jesus was simply something in the background. It always seems to be the case that Jesus is not only their motivation, but their daily and constant preoccupation.

I'm always struck that, when Jesus speaks about the seed that fell on thorny grounds in the parable of the sowers, he says: "The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity." That is, he emphasises the pleasures of life even more than its trials.

And this rings true for me. I know from my own experience that enjoyment, giddiness and good humour are even more likely than adversity to drive the thought of Jesus from my mind. Readers of this blog would probably be shocked if they knew just how bitchy, uncharitable and indecent I can be when I'm kidding around. It's one of my besetting temptations. When I get into a giddy mood, or into the right company, I find it very hard to restrain myself (though I'm getting better at it, I think). I understand why Ecclesiastes says it is better to go into the house of mourning than the house of feasting. Or why Newman preached this sermon.

If St. Elizabeth of the Trinity had to go to a party, before she entered the convent, she would spend several hours of prayer in preparation for it. That makes a lot of sense to me.

It's not just giddiness, though. It's intellectual and cultural interests, as well. Ever since I became a Christian, I realise that there have been many times when my faith was in the background, and some other preoccupation was in the foreground. Despite my daily rosary and my near-daily Mass attendance, this happens. These things are always in danger of becoming mechanical.

Most of us have to live in the world, so how do we address this problem? The approach I'm taking is to try to keep Jesus in the foreground every day. I know that keeping Jesus in the foreground every single moment should be the ideal, but if I can manage every day, I think that will be great progress. One way I'm trying to do this is to read the Bible for some non-trivial amount of time every day, but I'm also trying to do it by writing reminders to myself to read regularly. I'm hoping this will help. But I know this will remain a struggle, and no routine can replace that struggle.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Beautiful Passage from Tennyson's "Idylls of the King"

I've loved the poetry of Lord Alfred Tennyson since I was a kid, including "The Passing of Arthur", the final section from his long narrative poem Idylls of the King. ("The Passing of Arthur" is often printed in anthologies. Although it comes at the end of the poem, it was actually the first section written.)

The poem is divided into twelve 'Idylls", each containing a separate story. I'm currently reading "The Holy Grail", which describes the quest by many of the knights of Camelot to find the Holy Grail. The sister of one knight, who is a nun, has had a vision of it. When King Arthur learns that many of his knights (in his absence) took vows to search for the Grail, he is horrified-- he tells them that this is not their mission, that they should have stuck to their own mission as knights of Camelot, and that the quest belongs to Sir Galahad and Sir Perceval alone-- both of whom were granted visions of the Grail.

That's all incidental. In his quest for the Grail, Sir Percivale speaks to a holy monk Ambrosius, whose evocation of his simple, local life is very moving. He is somewhat sceptical of the Grail Quest, since he has found no mention of it in his holy books. His participation in the life of the community contrasts with Percivale's experience; ever since embarking on the Quest, he has seen no people, only phantoms. 

"O brother," asked Ambrosius – "for in sooth
These ancient books – and they would win thee – teem,
Only I find not there this Holy Grail,
With miracles and marvels like to these,
Not all unlike; which oftentime I read,
Who read but on my breviary with ease,
Till my head swims; and then go forth and pass
Down to the little thorpe that lies so close,
And almost plastered like a martin's nest
To these old walls – and mingle with our folk;
And knowing every honest face of theirs
As well as ever shepherd knew his sheep,
And every homely secret in their hearts,
Delight myself with gossip and old wives,
And ills and aches, and teethings, lyings-in,
And mirthful sayings, children of the place,
That have no meaning half a league away:
Or lulling random squabbles when they rise,
Chafferings and chatterings at the market-cross,
Rejoice, small man, in this small world of mine,
Yea, even in their hens and in their eggs –
O brother, saving this Sir Galahad,
Came ye on none but phantoms in your quest,
No man, no woman?"

"That have no meaning half a league away"! Isn't that amazing?

Prayer Requests

Readers are always welcome to ask for prayers from me and from other readers of the blog, whenever they so wish. Mail me your intentions and I will blog them, keeping them anonymous if you'd prefer.

I'm very grateful for all the times readers have answered my prayer requests. It shouldn't be a one-way street!

Sunday, November 12, 2017


I've never really been much of a novel reader, but one novel which greatly appealed to me in my teens was Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny. It's a fantasy novel, and the Amber of the title is a city which is the only "true" place in existence. Every other world, including out own, is a reflection of some aspect of Amber.

The central character, Corwin, wakes up in a hospital on present-day Earth with no memory of who he is. He leaves the hospital and pieces together his own story through various clues. He slowly realizes he is a member of the royal family of Amber, and he resolves to depose his elder brother from its throne. (There are a whole series of books about Amber, and later on I read them all, but I only really liked the first.)

The idea of Amber was wildly exciting to me. For one thing, I absolutely love the word "Amber". When I had a secret society with my brother and cousins, (we existed for the purpose of being a secret society), my code-name was Amber. It's one of my favourite names, and one of my favourite words.

But the idea of Zelazny's Amber thrills me, too, and this is what this blog post is about.

All my life I've been beguiled by the idea of a world, or a state of being, where life is elevated. I don't know what better word to use than "elevated", because this yearning is very specific and not be confused with other yearnings.

It's not a yearning for a utopia, because it doesn't seek to escape from evil and struggle.

If I use words like "humdrum" and "quotidian", that also gives the wrong impression, because this yearning is not a yearning to escape from the ordinary. In fact, I've always loved the ordinary with all my heart.

Banal is a better word than 'ordinary' here. The ordinary can contain the sublime, but the banal never does.

Perhaps Nietzsche's concept of eternal recurrence is the best way to approach it. Nietzsche said the ultimate affirmation of life would be to yearn for our lives to be repeated eternally. As a Christian, I obviously don't subscribe to that, but I do (involuntarily) apply the criterion of "eternal recurrence" to each moment.

I think; could this moment be frozen timelessly in a picture, or a poem? Is there something eternal within it? Now, obviously that can be a moment that is very ordinary, or one that is very special. It can be a kiss or standing at a bus stop on a cold day.

I've mentioned my fascination with photographs, especially enigmatic photographs...I constantly imagine I'm in a photograph when I am out and about. A photograph that is several decades old.

There are moments, however, that seem altogether devoid of this potential to be eternal. Bitching about one acquaintance to another, for instance. Small talk. Sarcasm. Channel-hopping. Lingering in a museum gift shop. Reading trashy magazines. That sort of thing.

Nietzsche expressed this very well, in a chapter of Thus Spake Zarathustra entitled "The Rabble". (In my early twenties, I read Thus Spake Zarathustra over and over):

Life is a well of delight; but where the rabble also drink, there all fountains are poisoned.

To everything cleanly am I well disposed; but I hate to see the grinning mouths and the thirst of the unclean.

They cast their eye down into the fountain: and now glanceth up to me their odious smile out of the fountain.

And it is not the mouthful which hath most choked me, to know that life itself requireth enmity and death and torture-crosses:—

But I asked once, and suffocated almost with my question: What? Is the rabble also necessary for life?

Are poisoned fountains necessary, and stinking fires, and filthy dreams, and maggots in the bread of life?

Of course, Nietzsche expressed this concept in typically aristocratic terms, and in my anti-populist youth I would have agreed with him enthusiastically. But even now, I sympathize with these words, although with the understanding that "the rabble" is me....the rabble is all of us, all too often.

Whenever we cheapen or banalize or coarsen life, we are the rabble.

But back to Amber. The thing I liked most about Amber was that Corwin only remembers it gradually. When someone first mentions the name to him (it's his sister, who doesn't realize he has lost his memory), it fills his soul with an unspeakable yearning and he doesn't know why. Slowly, he begins to remember it as the story goes on.

This is similar to my own yearnings for an "elevated" world. There's something inescapably indirect about such yearning.

When I look at my reflection in a Christmas bauble, and see myself and the room around me transfigured into something else, I seem to see Amber.

When I see out a back window through a front window, I seem to see Amber.

When I look at the frozen figures in a snow globe, I seem to see Amber.

I've often quoted a line I love from the poem "The Burning of the Leaves" by Laurence Binyon-- "The fingers of fire are making corruption clean". This yearning is a yearning for such a refining fire, in oneself and the world around.

I want to make clear that this isn't really a matter of morality. I'm not talking about the fires of Purgatory, and Amber is not Heaven. I'm talking about an attitude to this world.

Translated into social and cultural terms, this is a yearning for tradition, ceremony, ritual, solemnity, and splendour. For monarchy, cultural nationalism, hierarchy, chivalry, festival, national and regional identity, venerable institutions, public monuments, the preservation of rural life, and so forth.

It's what makes me wince when I see tacky advertising, or casinos, or trendy overpriced restaurants, or zany humour.

I yearn for Amber in cultural terms, too. As I've mentioned, I've been reading The Idylls of the King recently-- reading it, and reading about it. Whenever I read poetry, I feel a contempt for prose and for the primacy of prose. I get to thinking that we should read all prose as bashfully and apologetically as we read murder mystery novels. I feel ashamed of myself for reading so much prose.

I suppose my yearning for Amber is a yearning for a life that is poetry rather than prose-- and not just any poetry, but heroic verse like Idylls of the King.

Of course, we can never live in Amber. But we can try to get closer to it, to breathe its air.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Apologies to Marc Leslie Kagan

Marc, I only saw your comments on some earlier blog posts this morning. Thanks for those, and for your kind words.

I can't believe the Googie post got so many might be the most commented-upon post on this blog!

I really do appreciate people taking the time to comment and, if I ever fail to respond, it's only ever an oversight.

I also found this charming comment on my "What I Believe" post:

You say, "I believe in Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the same yesterday, today and forever."

NO you don't. That's the biblical Christ. YOU, sir, believe in "another jesus and another gospel" per 2 Cor 11:4, because the REAL Christ is not anymore in your piece of wafer thin bread as there is a man in the moon.

I challenge you to a debate on this very website on that very topic. But is it not true that you are a coward and will refuse the offer, coming up with some reason like, "I don't like your attitude?".

Either PUT UP your evidence for Transubstantiation, or kindly SHUT UP.

I can't help feeling a certain fondness towards people who write this kind of thing!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Idylls of the King (I)

On the bus into work on Friday, I was suddenly seized with a powerful desire to read some long poetry. I get these sudden whims. I can't help them. They come out of nowhere and are almost impossible to resist. Then they very often disappear, in favour of the next thing.

All the same, I've loved poetry since my early teens, and I've been in love with the magic of words for as long as I can remember. However, it was short lyric poetry which I loved, and which I've loved ever since, and which I'm sure I'll love till the day I day.

Poetry, it seemed to me, should be as intense and concentrated as a flame, and it simply couldn't be sustained for any longer than a few pages at most.

Poetry especially shouldn't tell a story, unless it was a very simple story, because a story requires lulls and pauses, and accounts of people going hither and thither. Plot mechanics are far too vulgar for poetry.

I did make efforts to read longer poems, but they never appealed to me very much. All the same, I couldn't help feeling a certain unease about this-- after all, most of the great poets did not regard their lyrics as their masterpieces, but their long poems. Was seventy or eighty per cent of a poet's Collected Poems to be regarded as so much ephemera?

Of course, I have read some long poems, including narrative poems. I read Paradise Lost in my twenties, and enjoyed it well enough-- although, as Samuel Johnson, no reader ever wished it longer than it was. (I'd known some excerpts of the poem since my teens, and indeed I had some of Satan's speeches off by heart. I always a bit of a rebel, so I identified with Milton's Satan-- although certainly not in any kind of Satanist spirit. I was an agnostic at this time.)

(Incidentally, it's funny how propitious name associations can be-- when I first encountered the name Milton, I associated it with Milton's Fluid. Milton's Fluid is a liquid used to sterilized baby bottles and the like. I didn't realize this; I think I thought it was some kind of medicine or tonic, such as gripe water. In any case, I associated the name "Milton" with something medicinal or astringent, and that association turned out to be entirely appropriate! Milton's poetry can certainly give pleasure, but it is a cerebral and even austere pleasure.)

Aside from Paradise Lost, I can't really think of any other long poem I enjoyed-- with the single exception of Night Thoughts by Dr. Edward Young, a series of extended blank verse meditations on death and the afterlife, written from a Christian perspective. I liked this because, like Paradise Lost, it's extremely philosophical and meditative.

I read George Chapman's blank verse translation of the Odyssey, Dorothy L. Sayers's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, The Ballad of the White Horse by G.K. Chesterton, The Wanderings of Oisin by W.B. Yeats, Autumn Sequel by Louis Macneice, the Canterbury Tales, and many others...I didn't really enjoy any of them as poetry, although I certainly appreciated passages from many of them.

In spite of all that, I decided, aged forty, that I was going to give long poetry another try. Not only reading it, but reading criticism about it.

I decided I would start with a long poem I had failed to conquer before-- that is, Idylls of the King by Lord Alfred Tennyson.

I've often written about Tennyson on this blog. "Ulysses" and "Locksley Hall" are amongst my absolute favourite poems of all time. I also like "Chorus of the Lotos Eaters", although it's a poem I very much associate with early puberty, when I remember being exhausted all the time. And there are even shorter pieces, such as "The Eagle" a six-line jewel of poetry.

Idylls of the King is the poem Tennyson regarded as his own masterpiece, and he wrote it over a period of decades. It's a set of linked blank verse narratives, set against the main narrative of King Arthur's Camelot, and its decline. The final "idyll", "The Passing of Arthur" is the most famous, and it's one that I've loved for many years. I've often quoted it on this blog. It includes these famous lines, which will speak to all conservatives:

"Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds."

And slowly answered Arthur from the barge:
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

So I've always wanted to tackle the entire thing. I've made one major effort before, and I gave up. But given this new gusto for long poetry, I thought Idylls of the King was a natural starting point.

Tennyson is an "eminent victorian" if ever there was one; in fact, one biography of him has the title The Pre-Eminent Victorian. He was bearded, patriarchal, serious-minded, liberal (in the old-fashioned sense), idealistic, and so on. When the Victorians became an object of scorn, Tennyson fell out of favour with them. As Samuel Butler famously wrote: "Talking it over, we agreed that Blake was no good because he learnt Italian at sixty in order to study Dante, and we knew Dante was no good because he was so fond of Virgil, and Virgil was no good because Tennyson ran him, and as for Tennyson—well, Tennyson goes without saying." Tennyson has been rehabilitated since then, but more in spite of his Victorianism than for it, or even regardless of it. I love him for many reasons, and his Victorianism is one of them.

Another reason I love him is for the sheer polish of his verse. There is never anything jarring in them, whether in terms of scansion, tone or language. Take this, for instance:

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font. 
The firefly wakens; waken thou with me.

Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.
Now lies the Earth all Danaƫ to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.
Verse this smooth is, in my view, unique to the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It's hard to describe exactly what makes it so "smooth"; it's not only the lack of discordance, but the ambitiousness of the scansion and sentence structure, almost so that it could be read as either poetry or prose, and needs no allowances made for it.

Well, I've spent so long writing this blog post, over the last two days, that I'm going to publish it as it is, and return to the subject another time.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

Every year, I'm saddened that Guy Fawkes Day (or Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night) has become so invisible. Regular readers of this blog will know my feelings about tradition. Short version: I'm keen on it.

Guy Fawkes Day commemorates the Gundpowder Plot of fifth November, a plot by Guy Fawkes and other English Catholic to blow up Parliament and thus assassinate King James I, and install a Catholic monarch instead. But the plot was detected, the plotters were executed, and Guy Fawkes Night became a celebration of the Protestant supremacy and foiling of Popish plots. So, it had an anti-Catholic element. Big deal.

I remember, when I was a kid, the British comics (which were the comics I got, since there weren't any Irish comics) used to print "Guy Fawkes masks" over centrefold pages, at this time of year-- the idea being that you would cut them out and put them on a cardboard base.

Today, there seems to be no mention of Guy Fawkes Day-- neither on the mainstream media, nor on social media. I find it very sad.

The jingle by which Guy Fawkes Day was immortalized was:

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I know not the reason why the gundpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Why should any traditions be forgot? It makes you sad. Anyway, happy Guy Fawkes Day!