Saturday, May 25, 2019

A Sip of Calviccino

Your gentle commentator J. Grump had not darkened the doors of Café Preténse for many months. His free time had been occupied with familial concerns, which included the reading of Protestant dogmatics for proselytization purposes. This particular Saturday saw a lull in the glossing of Reformation ramblings, and he made his way to the old caffeinating hole for a bit of creative writing. The clientele was hipster and millennial as usual, and your pious provocateur noticed that the café’s prices had been hiked during his absence.

“The cost of being pretentious,” I mumbled to myself as I sipped an admittedly subtle cappuccino.

I had left my wife at home to spend the morning with friends, and she told me not to return until I had finished the first draft of a poem. My mind wandered from the rhyming dictionary and I began people-watching. I recognized a minor local Catholic celebrity a few tables down. He had gained a following with his polemic podcast and was talking to someone whose back was turned to me. I thought at first it must be a fan, but then I saw the familiar tail sprawling out behind the chair, and my back stiffened.

The composition of verse suddenly became very engaging, and I hoped to go unnoticed. I had scratched out three lines of doggerel before the horned devil stopped short on his way out the door.

“Why,” he said, “if it isn’t my old friend Mr. Grump!”

I looked up from my notebook with a weary look.

“Hello, Wormwood.”

“Mind if I sit for a moment?”


“Thanks.” He made himself comfortable. “So. What is new in the world of you? Which fresh annoyances are making your life difficult these days?”

“I’m sure you already know. What is new in the distillery?”

“Bother, that old thing. Never get into the family business, I always say. Nothing but complaints from the lowerdowns about the decrease in quality, but I have been able to successfully market Wormwood’s Abyss to the lesser devil-class. What we lack in prestige we make up for in volume, but the damned aristocrats are pushing for a more refined small batch. Recruiting great human souls for such a spirited end is extraordinarily difficult.”

“Is that why you were talking to Prof. Podcaster over there?”

“Indeed.” The devil removed his hat and scratched his horns in consternation. “Perhaps one day I’ll snag him, but he’s a crafty one. Your parish of Tradistanis has a few men and women of potential greatness, but I fear the quality of preaching has plateaued their development.”

“How so?”

He shrugged. “Those priests are trained to expound repetitively about the same spiritual habits. It’s more than the fluff that normal diocesan priests splutter out to their sleepy flocks, but not enough to raise up greatness. The virtues they promote require only a little thought, and souls with undeveloped minds and wills cannot commit great sins. I swear to Styx, I am so tired of tempting people to indulge in phantasmal luxuries.”

“Perhaps a simple and humble faith are what people need,” I said. “Who am I to despise anyone for their weird devotions and clinging to scapulars? I expect the Virgin Mary smiles more on them than on me, sometimes.”

The devil traced an inverted pentagram over his chest in a spasm of superstition at the mention of that name.

“Well, I had hoped for better from you.”


“Vainglory is not the greatest of sins, but it is not a minor one. Encouraging people to look down on their fellow-man can be a stepping stone to bigger things.”

“Happy to disappoint you, I suppose. Don’t you worry that you’re telling me too much about your plans?”

“Oh. No, we’ll think of something else to do with you. Speaking of which, how’s the extracurricular reading coming along?”

“The Protestant theology of Dr. H? Slower than I had hoped. I would like to be done with it sooner rather than later. I don’t know what is more difficult, reading the blasted book or writing the commentary I promised my family. At least they’re engaging with me on something of substance. Family gatherings where everybody just ignores that I and my wife are the only Catholics in the room were getting so very old.”

“If you want my advice, be sure to respond in fine detail to all of that Calvinist’s arguments. That’s the only way to undo the wily wickedness of old Dr. H.”

“I cannot help but notice your twitching tail.”

“Don’t mind that. Have I ever told you of Dr. H’s arrival in the infernal realms? He lived to see the end of the Great War—one of the causes of the current dearth of greatness, by the way—and spent his last years in worry and doubt over the logic of the Modernists, not over the possibility of Papism. It was not hard to keep him distracted. You’ve seen clearly enough how he responded to those secular intellects with careful reason but to Rome with wrath, and then he added the usual Calvinist corruption of the divine character on top of that. Defamation of the Enemy and willful ignorance make for a fine vintage in the winepress of Dis. In fact, I believe there is a plan to open that particular bottle on the centennial of his death. The look on his face when he arrived…”

At that the wormy devil became lost in a reverie. I glanced down at my notebook and realized I could improve the rhythm of the second line. My scribblings interrupted the other’s thoughts and he packed himself up to go.

“See you on Sunday,” he said. “I need to see how our sermon plans are coming along.” I waved him out.

“Now,” I thought aloud, “what rhymes with ‘absinthe’?”

Monday, May 20, 2019

Is Conversion Still Possible?

We live in unique times, or so we hear. Technocrats would have us believe that the effusion of data, screens, and information bring the "human community"—a bit of Cold War gibberish spoken by those tomfools on 1st Avenue—to the boundary of new possibilities. Reactionaries, not unreasonably, read our times as exceptionally corrupt, replete with normative acceptance of sexual perversion, a decline in any sort of cultural morals other than students' caterwauling, the effacement of the family as a social structure, and a general message that one's opinions become more or less important based on one's demographic features. The age post-dates Christianity, neither having the decency to kill us, as the Romans did, or to listen to us and convert, as the Romans did.

Our own Christians wear dour faces, unable to laugh at the absurdity of our age and often protective of fading institutional aspects of churches (attendance, rates of contraception, views on specific political issues). One would think that a true inner-conversion to the spiritual life must be implausible in our age, but is it really?

The Saint Paul may have been the proto-convert, but Saint Augustine remains the archetype for those who are not Pharasaical Jews blessed with a vision of Christ. Augustine converted through years of struggle, dabbling in the Manichean religion, brothels, fathering a child with a mystery woman, and holding a very reputable job as the White House Press Secretary for the fourth century. We know he prayed, "God make me good, but not yet." Do we ever ask why?

Augustine liked his pleasures, that is why. Read no other reason into it, Augustine grew very complacent in the world in which he lived and weaved for himself. This struggle persists in our day, but also visited itself upon other more complacently Christian times (late antiquity, the Renaissance, the late Baroque age, the post-War West). Compared to those days, we live in an era of unprecedented ease, even those among us who live with a modest car and house, paying bills paycheck to paycheck, do not worry that we are one ailment away from death or one bankruptcy away from a life in a debtors' prison. Alone, modern comforts hardly constitute a Siren's call away from God, but they do certainly dull our desire to go any deeper in our zeal for Christ and the Church.

No one yelled Tolle, lege in my ear and I am, perhaps, worse off for it. Our remaining option is often presented as an opportunity to be "counter-cultural." Is there anything counter-cultural about having six children? Culture more likely thinks it a statement of madness than a statement of virtue, but we should have large families regardless. In fact, we do these things not to give effrontery to our world, but out of a higher dedication. Indeed, the great saints, like Bernardino of Sienna (observed today) or Francis, were more shocking for how different they were than for how "counter-cultural" they seemed.

We are left with no choice but to embrace a higher vision than that which we are permitted in this day. The real Roman Mass seems like a fitting place to start.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Mgr Gilbey - "Priest of Bacchus"?

source: Catholic Herald
I Drink, Therefore I Am is some very good light reading my Roger Scruton. The author, doubtless familiar to readers of this blog, reflects on the personal and cultural education and joy wine has brought him over the years, from his students days bumming glasses of rare Burgundian wines from sleeping friends to his more mature experiences.

In the first chapter he recounts his Cambridge acquaintance with architectural historian David Watkin, whom he describes as "someone who had fallen from the heights of inherited affluences and who was struggling to maintain himself in elegant decline." Watkin, who only died last year, introduced Scruton to the Cambridge chaplain, Mgr. Alfred Gilbey, the third "priest of Bacchus" in Scruton's wine education.
"Monsignor Gilbey, meticulously dressed in the style of an Anglican clergyman of Jane Austen's day, crouching forward in a bergère chair as though interrupted in the course of a confessional.... [he] confined his adverse judgement of my bohemian dress to a rapid sweep of the eyes, and then rose to take me by the hand as though welcoming the Prodigal Son....
"And indeed, as I came to know them better, I came to understand both of them as accomplished thespians, who had chosen their roles and chosen to be meticulously faithful to them. To say this is not to make a criticism. On the contrary, it is testimony to their great strength of character that, having understood the moral and aesthetic chaos of the world into which they were born, they each of them recognized that there is only one honest response to it, which is to live your life as an example. That is what Alfred Gilbey was to David Watkin; and it is what David Watkin has been to me....
"Although the Monsignor was a priest of Bacchus, he was also an apostle of Christ and a devotee of order in all its forms. He spent less time seated at his special table than kneeling in his private chapel (both situated, as it happens, in the Travellers' Club in Pall Mall). Convinced that it is in the nature of truth to give offence, he lived in a small, charmed circle of recusants, secure in the belief that 'in my Father's house there are many mansions', so that death would not, after all, be a social disaster.
"....The Monsignor, in dedicating his life to Christ, had never doubted that his soul had also been improved by claret, and by the civil dialogues that claret induces in its devotees. His second priesthood therefore fitted naturally behind the first. He knew exactly how to choose from a wine list the unassuming claret which, like his own Loudenne, would make no boastful claims for itself, either on the label or in the glass, which would suggest neither wealth in the purchaser nor ignorance in the guest, and which would rise from the glass with that fresh savour and smiling address that is never more evident than in the better crus bourgeois—not Loudenne only, but the exquisite Chateau Villegeorge or the robust Chateau Potensac, with their simple appellations of Haut-Médoc and plain Médoc. It is, Gilbey taught, in the inner landscape created by these modest clarets, that the soul of the drinker most often encounters the soul of the drink. They are conversational wines, wines to be listened to; and they provided the 'third that walked beside us' when the Monsignor explained to me the orthodoxies of the Catholic faith, and the hierarchies which they seemed, in his beatific vision, to demand of us. I did not go along with what he said, but I wrote of his character and philosophy much later, in Gentle Regrets, remembering with gratitude and affection a man who, on the narrow path marked out for him, went always forward, his bright eyes fixed on the horizon where his Saviour stood."

Sunday, May 12, 2019

General Absolution

General absolution. It has been notoriously abused. In the '70s and '80s youth groups and notoriously progressive parishes would employ a general absolution of sins in the place of proper, auricular Confessions. A nearby Mexican parish has an hour of Confessions daily and one priest, who at the end of the hour gives a [presumably invalid] general absolution to the remaining penitents before celebrating the evening Mass. But does abuse of something make it inherently illegitimate?

The other night I found myself at dinner with a genuine rad trad and discussing the theoretical situation of a crashing airplane (since a member of this blog was recently involved in crash) and the question arose: could a theoretical clerical passenger, if a plane was about to crash, simply stand up, tell any Catholics to be sorry for their sins, and give absolution? Canon 961 of the modern Code says yes. Conventionally, the only situations where general absolution would be given were in imminent danger of death or prior to battle in a war. The two priests travelling on the Titanic heard individual Confessions until the ship began its final plunge around 2:10AM, at which point they absolved the remaining penitents. Generally absolving belligerents in battle was common during the two World Wars, but predates the twentieth century considerably. In circumstances that do not permit individual Confession and which carry inherent danger of death, the Church seems to be generous in making the forgiveness of sins available.

Somehow our conversation shifted to whether one would want a FSSPX/FSSP type priest, a "Novus Ordo" priest (whatever the hell that means), or an Eastern rite priest in such a peril. I remarked I'd prefer whoever could get it over with the fastest. No, said the ubertrad. The FSSPX priest, unlike those others, would doubtless know that general absolution is probably always invalid because it is a dubious idea. Why absolve people who do not know to be sorry for their sins? God is not mocked, after all. "Theologians" apparently dispute that the general absolutions granted during the Wars of Religion, the World Wars, or on crashing planes, is valid; perhaps they might be valid for those who intended to go to individual, auricular Confessions and who could not due to time, but still, they probably did not receive forgiveness. It would be much better and less offensive to God for these people to attempt to make the de facto impossible perfection Act of Contrition and achieve total detachment from sin. If they were really sorry, they would not have been in mortal sin and in a perilous place to begin with.

Theoretically, Confessions need not be private. The most ancient form of absolution, attested in St. Cyprian of Carthage and in the Pontificale Romanum on Mandy Thursday, is for the bishop to forgive public sinners in the face of the assembled faithful. In such a case the penitents may not have made a total admission of their sins, but by their accusation and penance such an admission is understood. Would not an Act of Contrition accomplish much the same thing? In normal Confession, the Act of Contrition is really just a placebo, but in articulo mortis it takes the places of many key conditions of Confession: admission of sin, petition for forgiveness, and purpose of amendment.

The ubertrad insisted general absolution was invented by the Apostles due to language barriers—evidently they did not receive the Gift of Tongues—and that such circumstances do not exist anymore. Quibbling over its validity is much like quibbling over whether a priest can walk into a bakery, say hoc est corpus meum, and consecrate anything that is pure bread. Or is it? Does the Church intend to forgive these people, who might not otherwise be on their way to Confession? From more modern history and Canon Law, it seems the Church does do this.

Have I met an eccentric or is there a deeper Traditionalist hangup about this subject?

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

"We Do Not Know the Rules"

"Did I ever tell you about the haunted house I sold?"

"No, you did not."

"[Rad Trad], let me tell you about that house."

My friend, and the realtor who sold me my home, lit up his pipe and I touched fire to the end of a Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill.

"It was a log cabin in the woods, quite remote from anyone in Tyler, nearby. I would leave a key between the horizontal timbers for showings and they continued that instead of getting a key-hiding rock, except whenever they did it, the key always fell the moment they got in their car. Every single time."

"Really?" I was getting a sweet cedar note, a signature Romeo flavor. Thus far, nothing interesting.

"Really! I did not think that was too interesting, but then they told me 'The garage door also opens whenever we pull in the driveway. There is no electronic opener! It's entirely mechanical!' I thought, 'Alright, but perhaps someone is pulling a trick on you.' "

About an inch in, I remembered why the Wide Churchill was so very different from the regular Churchill. Whereas the latter has a sweet, subtle flavor, the former, with the same blend in a wider ring gauge, is slightly spicy, fuller in body. It is amazing how different one tobacco blend tastes in two formats, much like drinking a delicate Burgundian wine from a deep Bordeaux glass or a wide Pinot Noir glass.

"So, I asked them, 'Is anything else different?' They told me, 'Just that books fall off shelves at random times of day'....

"'Oh, is that it?'

"'Yes,' she told my friend, 'and we could deal with it if not for the kitchen cabinets slamming all night.' "

My cigar fell out of my mouth and ashed in my lap.

There is no such thing as a ghost, dear reader, or so I was taught to believe as a child. And how I did discount the supernatural as a precociously reasonable child! And yet, these things do in fact happen.

In no first hand experience of a "ghost" have I ever heard that such a spirit was malicious. My oldest friend, who I knew since the age of six, grew up in a house built in 1860; around 2007, her much younger sister began to see a pale, blue man wearing a long coat and a top hat, but he never had anything to say. She saw this figure consistently for a year. After psychological exams proved she was not insane and a county inspection confirmed that there was no gas leak, the family warily consulted the local priest, the friendly Father Bob, who knew nothing about possession other than that this was not it. Father Bob blessed their home and left it as was.

Ghosts, so wrongly named by our Protestant literary ancestors, are not malevolent beings. The wicked die and suffer forever, unless Christ, somehow, permits them to test Mankind as He permits the demons to do so. There is precious little writing of "ghosts" and "spirits" in Christian culture before the Reformation, but there is plenty to be seen of the appearance of souls. One of the more famous accounts is that of a figure wreathed in flames appearing to Saint Lutgardis of Belgium in 1216, declaring that he was Pope Innocent and that he was doomed to suffer for six centuries on account of his short-comings as Vicar of Saint Peter. The saint documented the apparition and some short time later received a letter than Innocent III had died the very day she saw the fiery figure.

To our Catholic minds, what pre-Modern culture called "ghosts", we might well call "Holy Souls", those who belong to God finally but not yet in fact. There are many traditions and fables around "ghosts" and many firmer theological speculations about those in Purgatory, being purified of their inability to obey the commandments of God in this life, but two things are clear:

  1. that these things do, absolutely, happen... and....
  2. that, in the words of Montague Rhodes James, "we do not know the rules"

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

A Saint in Mortal Sin?

Graham Greene is, like Waugh and others, one of the great novelists of the 20th century whose name has often been relegated to the back of the academic catalog in favor of the gibberish, stream of consciousness, proto-intersectional doggerel that masquerades as literature. Good writing can, and should, teach, but it primarily tells a story, something my English professors at Cornell were never too eager to admit to us.

Greene was a bad Catholic, let us not delude ourselves. I recently read his End of the Affair, an intriguing novel told from the perspective of a shunned lover angry with his ex-mistress, who continues to live with her bourgeoisie husband after making a promise to a God she is not sure she believes. The narrative easily speaks of sensual encounters, codependency, and nostalgia with the ease of any well cultured person who never asks the deeper questions of his own soul; indeed, if Greene was a deeper man than Maurice Bendrix, then he was a very versatile writer indeed.

What intrigues in this quasi-modernist novel is the proposition that one remains utterly dependent on God while leading a life in mortal sin. Bendrix's lover, Sarah Miles, makes a hasty vow during the Blitz and wonders if she really means it. She is hardly haunted by God in the sense that later platitudes of "Catholic guilt", otherwise known as a conscience, linger in some. She is simply and acutely aware of a presence of God and wishes it were not there. She visits a St. Mary's, Park Road, in London and finds it excessively fleshly—replete with statues and gore, cold, and all too real. Simultaneously, she meets an outmoded rationalist preacher to whom no one will listen. She admits to the secular sectarian that it all seems like it should be nonsense if not for the inner knowledge that she is not alone, that her vows stands always before her.

We later find out that she once received Baptism out of her mother's spite years earlier and that she requested instruction in the faith at the time of her death. The secularist, whose face was mutated, is cured after sleeping with a strand of Sarah's hair. Sarah becomes a silent saint, dying to her own desire for Maurice Bendrix and retaining her difficult promise to God. In the end, Maurice even acknowledged God's existence by asking Him to leave him alone.

One could congratulate Greene on breaking convention and making the supernatural the real if only Sarah did not merely do the right thing, seeking conversion, but was actually good and had some apparent depth to her soul. She is cold to Bendrix, and he certainly returns the favor, but we see no actual yearning for God, for the Good, for that which Augustine prayed "Make me good, just not yet."

At the very least, Greene's sinful saint is a vast improvement over Karl Rahner's anonymous Christian.