Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The past is a foreign country

The Rolls Royce Cloud pulled up (of all the ironic incongruities!) in front of my modest condominium. Out stepped a gentleman in a tux WITH TAILS! I watched him out the window as he placed on a silver tray, with white-gloved hands, a cognac glass, popped open a bottle of Camus, and deftly poured some into the glass, then added a rose in a vase, and placed beside it a folded parchment with a red wax seal upon it. Then he rang my doorbell.

First time I ever had Camus Cognac ... along with something else I missed while looking out the window: a neatly-wrapped pack of four Louixs cigs. Amazing.

You guessed it. This guy's got taste. No, not the gentleman courier. I mean the gentleman who sent the courier: the clandestine underground correspondent we keep on retainer in an Atlantic seaboard city that knows how to keep it's secrets, Guy Noir - Private Eye, who more than makes up for the modest stipend I send him in all these elegant accessories he sends along with his telegrams and sundry other missives. It's like being a seminary professor and hiring a guy with James Bond's tastes (or James Bond himself!) to do a little sleuthing for you. You pay him pennies on the dollar in terms of the good time he shows you. It makes Lent a nearly impossible challenge some days.

Here's what he wrote me: Noir, not Bond (though they could be the same person for all we know):
Interesting meditation here. This part hit me because it is a boilerplate line of recent papacies: "And there is no going back."

Peter Kreeft has a counterpoint line to the effect that, "People say you can't turn back the clock, but why not? Isn't that exactly what you do if it is telling the wrong time?"

Like in discussion of many other items, a lot of informed people would say the old product was simply plain better. They don't make them like they used to. Etc. An odd attitude to have to take to a Church's most prized communal possession.

Oh, and enjoy the cigs. I picked them up in Havana, of all places, last week. [emphasis mine - PP]

The "meditation" Noir was referring to was this piece, by James Casper, "The Past is a Foreign Country" (Ignatius Press, March 19, 2015). Wistful and profoundly true, I was glad to have the Camus Cognac in hand as I read the piece, which awakened some deep sentiments in my own soul:
Much we know about the world would be lost were it not for artistic renderings of the past. Memories otherwise would seldom outlive those who remember.

Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars forced professional historians and casual readers alike to revise assessments of the Catholic religion in England in the years immediately preceding the Reformation:
If medieval religion was decadent, unpopular, or exhausted, the success of the Reformation hardly requires explanation. If, on the contrary, it was vigorous, adaptable, widely understood, and popular, then we have much yet to discover about the processes and the pace of reform.
In the almost six hundred pages following this observation, Duffy develops support for this thesis: that the Reformation in England was more of a revolution against a popular, widely-revered institution than an effort to reform something rife with problems and corruption. He can only build his case by reference to contemporary written accounts and a study of Church artistic works that somehow managed to survive state-sponsored efforts to obliterate the past.

The Tudor and Puritan road he guides his readers down is littered with burnt books, defaced statues, destroyed altar screens, and melted down church vessels. Destroy the artistic creations and traditions of an age, and when the last person who remembers it dies, a world dies also. This is where the road ends.

In our own time, those of us old enough to remember the Catholic Church as it was prior to Vatican II are also living with an obliterated past on a road marked ‘Dead End’. Inevitably, as the days move along, we are a vanishing breed on an all but forgotten journey.

These days much is made of the Catholicity of celebrated writers Chesterton, Tolkien, and Waugh. The latter two lived long enough to experience firsthand changes wrought by Vatican II, and both railed against them. (Details are at hand in the Ignatius Press edition of A Bitter Trial.) Tolkien and Waugh would never again feel at home in the Church. G. K.’s childhood memory of successful businessmen, bankers, and shop clerks falling to their knees as Cardinal Manning passed by along Kensington High Street seems to come from a world other than this one. G. K.’s old nemesis, George Bernard Shaw, might think the Church has become a bit more palatable, but what would G. K. himself think? Given his sense of humor, he might have somehow managed whereas Belloc—had he lived to see the day—would have blown a fuse.

Tolkien is said to have been dismayed by the exiling of Latin to what would become in our time a liturgical antique shop. Pope Francis the other day spoke approvingly of the vernacular replacing it. Pope Francis knows more languages than I do, but Tolkien, who understood Old English well enough to translate Beowulf, was irate. At times I myself am not even sure what to make of the English version, let alone the German or the Polish, which I do not grasp at all. From the current Psalm translations, O Lord, deliver us!

Complaints in this vein are now seen as coming from the make-believe world of annoying and tiresome fuddy-duddies. It has not taken long to obliterate a world where liturgical Latin could flourish. And there is no going back, except in memory. Eamon Duffy understands this. The last sentence of The Stripping of the Altars sounds a mournful note.

Along the way he has argued that sixteenth century English Catholics—peasant farmer and local aristocrat alike—had a general grasp of the Latin used in liturgical celebrations of their day.

I would argue that much the same was true of the farmer, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker of my time. You did not have to be a Jesuit to know what was going on in an age when—by the way—not everyone at Sunday Mass trooped forward to receive communion. (Barely a majority did.) Share that fact with someone today, and mention fasting from midnight; the smell of tuna fish sandwiches for breakfast in your classroom after ‘First Friday’ Masses, etc.

With respect to the past, we are all ‘cafeteria Catholics’.

Tell someone you fondly remember Pope Pius XII from an age when pontiffs were not expected to smile like beauty queens. Attempt to explain why he is your favorite pope. Mention the Marian Year while you are at it. Describe his serious, ascetic demeanor. As likely as not, your listener will bring up the Nazis.

To adapt a line from the novelist L. P. Hartley, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

What is a seventy-something writer supposed to make of this? Well, for one thing, he can set aside his laptop, pick up a quill pen, and do his bit to jot down a few remnants. Younger people will think that he made it all up, but how would they know when even their parents weren’t born yet?

Good stories have a staying power, a far longer half-life than much else that is written. Tolkien’s durable reputation reminds us of that. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday will outlive much else that he wrote. Our seventy-something writer might do it far less well than they did, but at least at the end he can say that he did his bit.

In one of my unpublished novels, a derelict hotel standing between a Catholic church and a strip club is demolished, leaving the church and strip club as next door neighbors in a sort of Augustinian microcosm of good and evil cohabiting. The pastor of the church and the manager of the strip club inevitably meet each other, and fall into the habit of visiting on a bench in the vacant lot where the hotel once stood. It turns out that the strip club manager is a former altar boy, old enough to remember the Latin responses to Mass prayers the priest also recalls from his seminary days.

Brought together by a shared past, soon enough the two of them are sitting on the bench in private, going through the Mass as it once was. We who still cherish such things read along to hear this luscious language batted back and forth between an old priest and a recalcitrant, once-upon-a-time altar boy:
Introibo ad altare Dei.
Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutum meam.
It is only a short walk from there to the church itself where a scandalized congregation stares agog as the strip club owner assists the priest at Mass. That such a past rings true in the hearts of these two old men was bound to lead somewhere wonderfully rejuvenating. In the very best of fiction, this enlightening linkage between past, present, and future is always evident. Of course we see it in the writings of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. We see it in the American South of William Faulkner; in the Ireland of James Joyce; in the shattered and sometimes shattering Catholic worlds of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. We hear its echo, at once both hopeful and despairing in T. S. Eliot’s words from Ash Wednesday:
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
Thanks for a wonderful soul-searching evening, Noir ...


Raider Fan said...

The recent past is the future of the present as Our Pope and Our Cross continues to not only channel Pope Paul Vi but to intensify his revolutionary attitudes and approach to the Faith delivered once for all.

Read this excerpt about Pope Paul Vi by the Abbe de Nantes and tell this write-backer how it does not also describe the Bishop of Rome:


Begin quote P. 1

Everybody heard of your refusal to grant an audience, or to greet in any way, those thousands of traditionalist Catholics who had come to entreat you to safeguard their right to the Old Roman Rite of the Mass. And, was it the following day  ? when you received the leaders of the anti-Portuguese rebellion, they were told that these were Christians and the Pope never refused to see anybody who had come to Rome for this purpose. This was such a flagrant lie that it was greeted with laughter. But the press the world over understood your refusal to grant the traditionalist pilgrims an audience as a mark of your august displeasure, and your warm reception of the West African terrorist leaders – responsible for massacres of women and children – as an encouragement of their anti-colonial aspirations.
When another group, from France, more blindly devoted to the Holy See, went to Rome to assure you of their loyalty, you did not, indeed, spurn them, because there is nothing to fear from that quarter, but you used the opportunity of their visit to admonish them :
“  We are aware that these pilgrims, who have come in such large numbers, are anxiously loyal to the Catholic Faith, to the Church, to the See of Peter. And so we are glad to invite them to join, together with their Catholic brothers and sisters, and in confident collaboration with their bishops, who have the responsibility for all pastoral matters, in the vast effort of Conciliar Renewal to which the whole Church is called.  ”
I know some among those pilgrims whose eyes were opened as a result of this your declaration and who tore up their membership cards of Les Silencieux de l’Eglise then and there, and decided to join the Catholic Counter-Reformation instead. They had expected to find in you the Father of all, the Vicar of Christ, who would listen to them and pay heed to their lawful grievances. Instead, they found one who had firmly taken sides, and merely sent them back to the tender mercy of their Gallican despots.

Raider Fan said...

Begin quote P. 2



I could give the example of the Catholic Traditionalist Movement in the USA, whose founder, the excellent Father Gommar de Pauw, sent you a most touching, pleading letter, dated August 15, 1967. There is no end to the saga of troubles with which he had to put up from that day onward. You did not vouchsafe him a reply, and it was in the knowledge of your backing that the US bishops have done nothing to spare such a reactionary Movement.
The Spanish Confraternity of Priests are brave fighters against subversion and we should have expected Your Holiness to welcome the news of their Congress for the Defence of the Mass and the Priesthood, held at Saragossa in September 1972, and to be pleased to send them your Apostolic Benediction. Instead, you wrecked their efforts in an entirely unworthy manner. When several Cardinals of the Curia, and a number of Archbishops and Bishops had already committed themselves to attending, and had even announced the theme of the talks they were to give, a last minute order coming from you stopped their attendance. None dared to risk your frown. And the progressive press the world over was delighted at the trick which you had played on these worthy and devout priests, who went on, in spite of everything, to express publicly their respect and obedience, their confident devotion to your Person. It really is enough to make one weep. On which side is the schism  ? Who is it that shows a burning love and charity  ? On which side lies the hatred  ?
Msgr. Marcel Lefebvre was one of the two or three among the “  minority  ” at the Council whose head remained clear and whose courage did not fail On that account alone he would have deserved a Cardinal’s hat at your hands, even had it been only to show your continuing paternal feelings towards all your children or as a sign of clemency to the vanquished. Instead, he has been the constant victim of your silent but attentive wrath. You were glad to see his downfall, and saw to it that he should leave Rome. You allowed him to be ostracised by the French Episcopate.
His seminary does not owe you anything, except that you were not able to inhibit its birth. But our bishops have all sworn never to accept any of its priests. For them this radiantly Catholic institution has become the “  wildcat Seminary  ”. Once again, we ask where the hatred lies. On which side are discord and the intention of schism, which side has offended against its brother  ? I know full well that, in agreement with Cardinal Villot and the French Episcopate, you are seeking to destroy this little seedbed of vocations, this refuge of true Christian freedom, this haven for priests after God’s heart. Should you succeed in doing so, your schism will only become the more manifest.

Raider Fan said...

Bein quote p 3


I could go on listing examples of your sectarianism. If I were to mention all the cases where you have shown friendships that are entirely against nature, and enmities without reasonable cause, there would be no end to the list, for the relations of the New Rome with the various religious, ethnic or national groups of the world follow such a pattern. India, for instance, has risen in your affections and has for you become more “  peace-loving  ” (Discourse given at Bombay, December 4, 1964), since she snatched Goa from Portugal. Spain has your sympathy only to the extent to which she moves in the direction of revolution. North Vietnam has all your sympathy against the South. I need not continue. The story is always the same. You are against the Catholics, and for their enemies. I shall have more to say later on about who are suffering persecution, and find that you are favouring their persecutors…
But why  ? What causes this misplacement of your affections  ? The answer is that it is the result of your aberrant way of thinking. A heretic, even if he is allowed to remain within the bosom of the Church, cannot bear to live in peace and brotherly communion with those who live by that Faith which he no longer has, and against which he is fighting. He is necessarily sectarian, to the extent to which he is no longer a man of God but a man of a particular philosophy. Sooner or later, he begins to develop feelings such as Cain had for his brother Abel, as we read in Holy Scripture, and we know that he ended up by killing him. Psychologically, you have reached a similar stage, as we are made aware when we hear those strange-sounding curses which you shower upon those – mostly simple souls who have lost the ground from under their feet – who will not follow in your footsteps : “  Woe to those who remain aloof, woe to those who are sad ; to those who are indifferent and discontent, woe to those who lag behind  !  ” (Spoken on September 14, 1966, Documentation Catholique 66, 1644)


Marissa said...

Thank you for writing this - I'm a 27-year-old convert (will be confirmed at Easter) and I attend an FSSP parish. I have this sense of something missing, after reading the works of Chesterton and others. You are right, the young need to hear these stories or we'll never know what might soon be gone forever.

Paul Borealis said...

Dear Marissa, welcome to the Catholic Church! God bless you.