8 August 2017

On the 'real', revisited.

A few days back I wrote a little on Facebook about why I didn't bother finishing the Game of Thrones book, and about this peculiar notion that some people have that George RR Martin managed the impossible task of squaring the circle in writing a realistic fantasy. I'll continue in that vein. What makes this work 'realistic'?

In short, it is the dirt and grit and sex and horrors that the characters endure. We have been conditioned to believe that that and that alone is real. As I said before, the actual Middle Ages (upon which the book that inspired this little meditation is at least partly based) were absolutely nothing like the world presented in this book. Even without the dragons or ice zombies, they couldn't be more different, for Martin has removed everything that was good about the Middle Ages from his world. And for that we call his work 'realistic'.

The problem has been around for some time. Back when I was in the Creative Writing program at university, we would have would be writers bringing in their works about dysfunctional families, meaningless sex, the pointlessness of absolutely everything, who would declare their writing to be a revelation of deepest reality. "This ain't no f------ Brady Bunch!" one drug addled nihilist screamed out in class once. "This is gritty, s-----, punch in the face boot to the head LIFE, man!" as though that was the sum total of life. Happy families are an illusion, miserable ones are real. Also, vulgarities were an infallible touchstone of the real. Polite conversation was a mere social convention and therefore an illusion.

It is an old problem, and, as is the case with old problems, someone else summed it up long before and far better than I could. In this case, CS Lewis in his Screwtape Letters:

 You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”. they tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. on the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word “real” can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us. the general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. thus in birth the blood and pain are “real”, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death “really means”. the hatefulness of a hated person is “real” — in hatred you see men as they are, you are disillusioned; but the loveliness of a loved person is merely a subjective haze concealing a “real” core of sexual appetite or economic association. Wars and poverty are “really” horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments. the creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it.

Where did this come from? I am uncertain. The art following the First World War exhibits this tendency. Perhaps the news also has a hand in this. Ordinary life is simply not news. Horrible things are. A man who works hard and supports his family and loves his children is not news. One who beats and rapes his children is. The one will not have his name recorded for his deeds nor his life examined. The other will.

But this is folly. It is though we were to say that only foul weather is real, and fair weather an illusion. Or that foul smelling excrement is real, but the food that nourishes and sustains and sometimes delight us is not.

That we consider one to be real and the other not, or only the terrible to be real says more of us than it does of our world and, well, anything around us. That we would find a tale of a bunch of coward, liars, murderers and cheaters to be real, but tales of heroism, courage and honour to be fictions is an indictment of ourselves.

3 August 2017

On the new uniform of the Knights

My take:  misfire, with a little meh thrown in.

As a third degree Knight, I have thus far resisted going into the fourth degree as the cost of the old uniform was prohibitive.    I simply didn't have the money for a tux, chapeau, gloves, sword, etc.  And frankly, I thought it looked ridiculous on most of the men who wore it.  So will I be leveling up now that the new, and presumably less expensive,  uniform is out?

Well, maybe not.

The new uniform resembles a military one.  It is very similar to the uniform of the Legion (association of Canadian veterans).  We would be mistaken for soldiers regularly, and that's what I don't like about the change.  The honour of looking like soldiers should be the privilege of soldiers and soldiers alone.  I did not serve, therefore I have no right to look like someone who did. 

As I said, this was a misfire.  I was not against altering the uniform as such, but this replacement is a mistake.  But, having said that (and here's where the 'meh' comes in) I will still be a member, pay my dues, and help out with our functions around the parish. 

30 July 2017

How rich is rich?

I haven't commented much on matters of the faith of late as I am painfully conscious of the deficiencies of my formation.  But, on the other hand, I have also realized that being silent does no one anyone any good, particularly me, as I will never be corrected unless someone sees how wrong I am.  With that in mind, take the following with liberal amounts of salt.

A few friends of mine on Facebook got into a debate the other day over what mount of money, in general terms, makes one 'rich'.  They were concerned about Matthew 19:24  "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." So the rich are not making it into heaven, but what does it mean to be 'rich'? We know, for example that billionaires are fairly considered rich, but what about millionaires? A million dollars is not what it used to be, you know.  And thus the debate.

The whole question seemed to me to be wrong, and on the wrong track simply to begin with. I do not mean that they should not concern themselves at all with this matter.  Catholics have a well established tradition of claiming that the rich are in a particular spiritual danger, such as Chesterton points out in this long quotation:

Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man's environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest — if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this — that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor.

The problem lies not in man's environment, but in man, but some environments are more dangerous than others. I think Chesterton has a better grasp of the issue than did my friends, and yet Chesterton does not define what it means to be rich, either. I imagine this is probably because he believed it was not the exact amount that was at issue. 'Rich' is of course a somewhat relative term.  Those considered 'poor' in North America today are in many ways far more materially 'rich' than any king in the time of Christ.    Trying to put an exact number on the matter seems a kind of folly to me. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine going up to the pearly gates to find that I, and all who are with me, must now produce our bank books, and those with $1,000,000 are sent into the fire, and those with $999,999.99 or less are allowed into the kingdom.  The real question my friends should have been asking is not how much, but how and why do the rich have so much? 

What else does Christ say about the rich to give us a clue as to his meaning here?  There is the story of Lazarus and Dives- the leper and the rich man- in which good things came to the rich man in his life and bad things to Lazarus, and the rich man never tried to ease Lazarus's suffering.  Therefore in the next life Lazarus is comforted but Dives is left to suffer.  This is a terrible warning to us who live in a society where even our poor have more than enough.  But there is also Luke 12:13-21, the parable of the rich fool:

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

The wealthy, as Chesterton says, are in danger of a particular moral danger that the poor are largely exempt from.  As Christ tells us, they are more apt to put their trust and hope in things, and not in the Lord, and there is no precise dollar amount that will lead one over that cliff.

At any rate, my friends would have been comforted had they read but a few lines past the line that began their debate in the first place:

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?"

Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

It may be that a rich man may pass through the eye of the needle in the end, but it is only with the Lord's help, and only through absolute trust in the Lord, and not in the things and money one has accumulated.  He who has the Lord has enough, the saying goes, and they are truly rich.

21 July 2017

Brief History is now on Amazon. Let your joy be unrestrained.

I have finally published the first part, dealing with the years from 1828 to the death and funeral of Bishop Michael Power.  The e-book has been online for a few days, but the paperback version is having issues- it keeps reverting to draft rather than publishing, and I can find no reason as to why. I was waiting for both to be ready before announcing, however, I don't know how long this issue will persist, or if it even can be fixed.

I gave up waiting to hear back from the cardinal.  He told me I do not need permission from the ordinary to publish.  A kind word would have been nice, but, on the other hand, I did take issue with some of the conclusions reached by someone who turned out to be the quasi official historian of the diocese, and I also reject the conclusion reached by a documentary about the famine released ten years ago that the archdiocese (and the same historian) were consulted in and had a part in making.  Oops.  Or, more likely, he is simply too busy.

So, at any rate, in time for the 175th anniversary of the archdiocese comes my take on the rascals, ambitious ladder climbers, ordinary folk, not ordinary folk, a candidate for sainthood and international humanitarian catastrophe that helped shape the early years of the archdiocese of Toronto.  It is an entertaining, informative, but above all brief history of the Archdiocese of Toronto.

Here's the link: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B0741QPLB2


The paperback version is now online.  https://www.amazon.com/dp/1521892024

20 July 2017

From our travels

We were in downtown Charlottetown a week or so back when we were on vacation. The city seems to have some random costumed historical actors walking around the building where the first talks of Confederation occurred. I asked them what year they were from They replied: "The year of our Lord 1860, sir. What year are you from?" The man in the group then began tor grumble about the rumours of talks between the colonies to join up with the wretched united province of Canada and how the Canadians planned to bankrupt the island and kill all its men. The ladies cheered him on with a "Spoken like a true Islander!" We parted with a hearty harrumph.

I was unsatisfied with my part in the conversation. I was rather flatfooted by the unexpected encounter, and, as usual, I didn't think of a good retort until it was too late. If they want to do history, after all, then let's do history. I wish I had thought to say this, low and soft, in my finest Irish accent:

You want to know what year I'm from, do you, boy? I'm from many years, but the only one you need concern yourself with is Anno Domini 1847. That was the year my fine landlord in his fine clothes and tophat much like yours came and took every scrap of food I had grown on my farm, and left me with nothing but an acre of rotten potatoes. That was the year my youngest starved because there was nothing to eat. It was that year that landlord took the farm that had been in my family as long as anyone can count. That was the year we were put on a ship and sent out here, and while we were at sea my wife and another child turned black and died from the typhus and were thrown overboard like so much rubbish, without so much as a benedicitee. That was the year I stepped off that damned coffin boat and was greeted with jeers and signs saying 'No Irish Allowed' and 'no papists or dogs'. You an Orangeman? Don't answer. I can hear it in your voice, see it in your face and your fine, fine clothes, from your shiny buckled shoes to that hat that's as black as your soul. You want to know what's more, Orangeman? I was there when your carts crashed our St Patrick's parade, and when it was all over Paddy O'Connell lay dead in the street like a damned dog. I was there when the police men in their nice, neat uniforms with their polished buttons and their shiny badges swore on your bible that they didn't remember a thing, even though they were all standing right there when it happened. Orangemen, all of them, straight through and through. Well, let me tell you something, Orangeboy. You got a bit of luck that I met you here with these women. But we'll meet another day, when there aren't any women to protect you,  you with some of your friends, me with some of mine, and on that day I will be paid for my farm, my children, my wife, and my friend- like for like, and blood for blood. Now you get going, before I forget that there are ladies present and take a down payment on what is owed me. Good day, ladies.

10 July 2017

LOL indeed.

Last week we were in a small town for Canada Day. They had a parade down main street complete with various organizations from the town. There were the Freemasons, and the Kinsmen and Kinettes. Then along came the Loyal Orange Lodge (Acronym LOL. Seriously.) They didn't throw rotten fruit or rubbish at me, but there was a time when they would have. There was also a time when they would have, on account of my faith and race, denied me gainful employment, tried to take away my right to vote, rioted against my very existence, used my name a s a curse, and occasionally killed me or people like me. But they have moved beyond all that now. They're a kinder, gentler, orange lodge now. They band together for brotherhood and to support charities and do good deeds. They are no longer the absolutely hateful racists and supremacists they once were. And good for them.

But at the same time, I also thought of what it would be like for a black man a hundred years now watching parade wherein there might be a group of a kinder gentler KKK. The guys in sheets had a horrible past, to be sure, but they had moved beyond that and were now doing simple, unobjectionable things. Should he be alright with that? Would 'well sure, they used to be utterly despicable, but they're better now' cut it?

1 July 2017

Day of Nation and Memory

I greet my beloved countrymen on this day of nation and memory. A day of nation, because it is the one hundred and forty ninth anniversary since Confederation, and anniversary formerly known as Dominion Day. A day off memory because it is the hundred and first anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

At the time of Confederation, only four provinces elected to enter into the new Dominion- Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland opted to stay out. Prince Edward Island joined the confederation a few years later, and was later joined by BC, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Newfoundland, the last to join, only joined the Dominion in 1949 after a hotly contested plebiscite won by the narrowest of margins for the Dominion side. There are those in Newfoundland who believe the plebiscite was rigged by the British government who wished to shed themselves of a poor colony.

For Newfoundlanders, July First holds a double meaning. It is Canada Day, but the day holds another meaning to which they are dedicated- memory. It is the memory for which the provincial university- memorial university- is named and dedicated: to perpetuate the memory of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment and the events of July First, 1916 at Beaumnont Hamel, in the opening hours of the Somme offensive.

The Battle of the Somme has its roots in 1916's other and greater bloodbath, Verdun. The French were sustaining huge losses at Verdun, to the south of the British sector of the Western Front. The French appealed to General Haig, the British commander, to launch an offensive in his sector in an attempt to draw German units out of Verdun and to relieve the pressure on the French.
By this time, the war had reached a stalemate. Each side had adopted defensive trenches as a way to fortify their position, and no advance was made on either side. The trenches were a complicated affair. Each side laid out series of parallel trenches to create a defense in depth. Running perpendicular to the front line, second line and third line trenches were another series of trenches allowing movement back and forth between the trench lines, called communication trenches. The ground between the trenches was often covered in barbed wire, as was the area in front of the front lines. It was a formidable defense.

The battle plan, such as it was, called for the largest bombardment yet to destroy the German lines- trenches, barbed wire and all- at which point the British forces would push through unopposed and continue straight on to Germany. The British quickly amassed the shells necessary for the bombardment, and began the shelling on June 24, 1916. The attack was originally scheduled for June 29, but inclement weather caused the attack to be postponed. The delay also allowed an additional two days to the bombardment. So confident were the British of the utter destruction of the Germans that the units of the first wave of the attack were told they could walk upright and erect to the German lines. The trenches, the barbed wire, the Germans themselves would long since have been destroyed. The British generals even ordered the men to sew metal reflective plates onto their backs that would flash in the sunlight as they moved, so the generals could better observe their advance from aerial reconnaissance photographs they would peruse from their safe positions far in the rear.
In the meantime, the Germans stayed in their bunkers. The Somme region was known for having a bedrock of chalk, which could be easily excavated and provided excellent protection from shelling. The Germans dug their bunkers deeper and moved in more troops, as the French had desired. Far from obliteration, the only result of the bombardment was to warn the Germans of an impending attack, and allowed them time to reinforce their line. It did not destroy the trenches. It did not clear the barbed wire. The German position was stronger after the bombardment than before.
On the morning of July 1st at about 7:30 the guns fell silent, whistles were blown, and the British climbed from the trenches and began their advance. The Germans could not believe their eyes- thousands upon thousands of British troops advancing in parade ground marching formation, many of them lead by bagpipers. Their shock did not last long. They reached for their rifles and machine guns, sent signals to their own batteries, and opened fire.

It was a massacre. For almost the entire length of the Somme sector, the first wave was wiped out. The second wave was ordered over the top and met the same fate. Communication was a shambles. The only reports that reached the British Command came from the few units who had succeeded in their attack. Thinking the attack was successful, the third wave was ordered to prepare to go over the top.

The Newfoundland Regiment was at a place called Beaumont Hamel when orders came through at 8:45 am. The command had confused flares sent up by the Germans to their gunners to be flares from British troops calling for reinforcements, and believed the first and second waves had been at least partially successful. They issued the orders for the third wave go prepare to go over the top. The 1st Newfoundland and 1st Essex were to move forward and occupy the enemy's first line of trenches. At the time they were about two hundred metres back from their own front line, out of sight of the enemy. The Newfoundlanders tried to move to the forward trench, but the communication trenches were clogged with wounded and under shell fire. The commander of the regiment, Colonel Hadow, decided to move immediately to attack positions by ordering his men out of the trenches and to march on the open ground above the trenches to the front lines. Meanwhile, the first Essex decided to try and move through their communication trenches, and as a result were not in a position to launch an attack until 10:30. At 9:15 The Newfoundland men, about 780 of them, rose from their trenches. Colonel Hadow gestured with his stick the in the direction of the Germans, and gave the order. With that, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment began to move in rehearsed formations through their own front lines to the jump off point.

At first they were protected by a small rise that lay in the middle of the British trenches, but before long they crested the top of the little hill and were completely silhouetted against the morning sky. By then, they were the only thing moving on the battlefield. Every German gun in the sector turned towards them and opened fire.

Men began to fall. Men from tight knit communities, men who had served together, knew each other as friends and as brothers fell to the ground. Those who remained continued on. As one witness later said, they moved forward "with chins tucked down as if walking into a blizzard". More men fell. They continued their advance. They had not yet cleared their own front lines.
They marched on because they believed. They believed in courage and honour. They believed in truth and justice, they believed in their cause. Those who had been educated had learned the words "Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori"- "it is sweet and just to die for one's country" These words had meaning, such meaning that men were prepared to die for these words, and also for an empire that would shake off their beloved homeland the first chance it got. They were men of a generation that proved beyond all others that they believed. And because of days like this, because of four years of days like this, they were the last generation that could believe so honestly, so naively, so blindly, and so totally.

Deeper into the storm they marched. By the time they had cleared their own barbed wire and crossed into No Man's Land they had suffered perhaps 30 per cent casualties. With every step they drew closer to the German guns. The fire became more accurate, more concentrated, more deadly. They stepped over the dead and wounded from the earlier attacks, swelled the number of dead and wounded with their own, and pressed on. There was no cover. There was no retreat. There was no escape.

Perhaps forty or fifty men made it to the German trenches. They fought bravely, aided by a few of the survivors of the earlier attacks, but the end was never in doubt. Their fate had been sealed the moment they first rose from their trenches. It was over by 9:40.
For the wounded in the field the nightmare continued. As a final, terrible joke the wounded found thy could not move at all. The metal plates sewn onto their backs so the Generals could observe their movements also betrayed their movements to the German snipers. They had to lie still on the field, and hope they survived until nightfall. In the Northern Hemisphere, July First is one of the longest days of the year.

The 1st Essex attack was cancelled, but due to the communications chaos of that day, the order never reached them. They went over the top at 10:30, and suffered 280 casualties before the attack was called back.

July First remains the greatest one day disaster in the history of the British Army. Up and down the Somme front the casualties totalled 57,470, of which 19, 240 were fatal. For the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, 780 went over the top on July First. The next day, 68 answered roll call. The Regiment suffered the second highest rate of casualties of all the units that went over the top that day. Ultimately, tragically, the day was merely a prelude to slaughter. Before the Battle of the Somme was finally ended by Autumn rains it would claim over a million casualties. Of all the horrific battles of the First World War, it was second only to Verdun for blood.

News of the disaster soon winged its across the Atlantic to the Island home of the men in the form of telegrams telling their families and friends of their death. To an Island of small tightly knit communities, everyone was touched in some way by that day. The British tried to put a good face on the disaster by invoking the words that once meant something in ways that ring hollow today. The Divisional commander paid a grim tribute to the men: "It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault failed of success because dead men can advance no further." Later the reconstituted unit received the unique honour of adding the word "Royal" to its name, so they were now the "Royal Newfoundland Regiment". More men signed up, followed their people back across the ocean to the desperation of No Man's Land. The war would continue for another two years.
After the war Beaumont Hamel was ceded to the Newfoundland Government. The ground of the attack was preserved as much as possible as it was during the war. The government placed a statue of a caribou, the regimental symbol, standing over the British trenches, forever facing the German foe. The ground has been cared for, as a reminder of that desperate morning 100 years ago. Near the entrance to the park an epitaph is inscribed in Bronze. It reads:

And with bowed head and heart abased
Strive hard to grasp the future gain in this sore loss.
For not one foot of this dank sod
But drank its surfeit of the blood of gallant men
Who for their Faith, their Hope, for Life and Liberty
Here made the sacrifice.
Here gave their lives, and right willingly for you and me.