17 September 2017

A simple image

I have been going through some of the things that have come into my possession following my mother's death.  Among them was a couple of her old missals from fifties and sixties.  (Mother held on to almost everything.  She was practically a hoarder before hoarding was cool.)  In one of the old missals was a simple line drawing explaining the structure of the Mass for the reader.

Simple, elegant and clear.  I know of nothing in the modern missals like it.

I have some other books as well.  Among my favourites is a tiny little book- maybe two inches wide by an inch and a half- now falling apart printed in the 1910's and called The Little Key to Heaven.  it was given to my father for his first communion. It is filled with prayers and the ordinary of the Mass as well as the proper prayers for a few of the more important masses including the Requiem Mass.  It also instructs the reader- in this case, a child- in what at that time were the most basic elements of the Faith.  Nowadays, we are even more basic.  I was once with a group of grown Catholic men and we are given a quick quiz on our faith.  One of the questions was: what are the commands of the Church?  The other men looked at each other blankly.  They had never heard of such a thing.  I knew it not from my eleven years in Catholic school, nor from my decades of attending Mass, but because the commands of the church were on one of the first pages of The Little Key to Heaven.  What children were once expected to know is now deemed to hard to teach children and hence adults never know them either.  When will we learn the simple lesson:  When we ask for much, we get much, but when we ask for less we get even less.

13 September 2017

The Plains of Abraham

Today is the 258th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. The battle itself was brief, lasting perhaps fifteen minutes. The place of the battle, while it was a grand sounding name, was actually a cow pasture owned by a farmer of the name of Abraham. The deaths in the battle were unusual, in that both Generals died in the battle, during an era when generals usually watched their armies battle from a safe distance.

It brought about the end of the French absolutist government in North America, and brought in British rule of law, and eventually parliamentary democracy. The nightmare of the French Revolution and its attendant Reign of Terror and the genocide of the Vendee never spread to North America because of the outcome of this brief battle. A stagnant government and economy was replaced by a more dynamic one, allowing for rapid economic growth. Despite being defeated, the French were offered generous terms of surrender, and were permitted to keep their language and religion, and to even vote, becoming the first place in the British Empire that allowed Catholics to vote. The Quebecois have been complaining about it ever since.

Wolfe, on the eve before his victory, as he dressed for battle, recited from memory lines from Thomas Grey's Elegy in a Country Churchyard.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Wolfe declared he would rather have been the one to have composed those lines than win Quebec on the morrow.

His path of glory did lead but to the grave. A monument once marked the spot on the battlefield where he fell, with the legend "Here died Wolfe victorious" carved into the stone. it was blown up by Quebec separatists. A new monument stands in its place with the words "Here died Wolfe". The burial place of the British soldiers who fell in the battle was long ago paved over. Cars pass over their forgotten bones.

12 September 2017

The Battle before the Gates of Vienna

Three hundred and thirty four years ago today, the city of Vienna teetered on the brink of capture and destruction, surrounded by its enemies, the few people remaining tired, hungry, and sick with dysentery and plague.  Still they refused to surrender.

They had been under siege by an army of approximately 160,000 Turks and their allies for months. Vienna was a great prize they had failed to capture in earlier wars. With it they could control the waters of the Danube and its trade routes, and effectively split Europe in two. The Austrians had known the enemy was coming and had sought allies of their own. The Pope himself called for aid for the Austrians. But France's Sun King Louis XIV had his eyes on Austrian territory for himself. Few seemed interested in helping. In desperation the Austrians turned to an old rival, the Poles, and sought their aid. To what must have been their amazement, the Polish King, John III Sobieski, better known as Jan Sobieski, agreed.

But the Poles were nowhere to be found when the Turks crossed into Austria and marched on the city. The Austrian Emperor declined the Turkish invitation to stay in his bedroom and wait for them to behead him, and had fled Vienna, as did most of the population. The commander of the garrison in Vienna had between 10-15,000 men at his command. Knowing the Turks were coming, The razed all the buildings around Vienna's walls to deny the Turks cover, brought in as much grain and farm animals into the city as they could, and prepared to muster what defense they could.

Meanwhile, in Poland Jan Sobieski had a problem. While he was King of Poland, he could not order the mustering of the army on his own. That order could only be given by the unanimous vote of the Polish Diet. King Louis of France, wishing no aid to be given to the Austrians, had his embassy in Warsaw offer bribes to the members of the Diet. Hearing of this, the Pope in Rome gave his ambassador free rein on the wealth of Rome, and ordered him to bribe the council in favour of coming to Vienna's aid. Sobieski himself seemed to be motivated by his own sense of honour.

Sobieski had been a general before his election as king. He had waged many campaigns against Turkish invaders to his own land and had turned them all back. He had won many victories when he had been outnumbered greatly, and had won the respect of the Turks themselves, who called him the "Unvanquished Lion." He had travelled widely in Europe and had even spent some time in Constantinople. His travels had given him a sense of the importance of Christendom, and while the Austrians were his rivals, yet they too were part of Christendom, and he knew that if Vienna fell, Christendom itself was not far behind. He would not let that happen. At least, not without a fight.

In the end, the council had its unanimous vote. They were either bribed incredibly by the Papal envoy, or they had been swept up in Jan Sobieski's fervour to defend all of Christendom. There is a story that on the day of the vote Louis XIV's ambassador stood outside the council chambers, offering 100,000 ducats to anyone who would cast a veto. There were no takers. Jan Sobieski would take Poland to war.

Which is almost literally what he did. He mustered the entire Polish army and began the march. He left Poland almost completely defenceless. And yet, his own army was a few more than 40,000. He expected to meet with some allies on the way to Vienna, but he would be severely outnumbered- but he had been outnumbered before, and he had been victorious, before. He began the long march, turning aside briefly to take the army to a shrine to Mary, where he put all his men, and all of Europe, under her care. Then he resumed the march to Vienna. Before him lay either victory, or annihilation.

Meanwhile, in Vienna the situation had been deteriorating for the defenders. Unable to approach the walls openly, the Turks had taken to digging trenches to protect their men as they approached the walls. The defenders held slowed them down, but still they crept closer and closer. Below the ground, the Turks took to digging mines to try and bring the walls down from below. The Austrians dug counter mines, and stopped most of them, but the Turks kept coming.

The horrors of siege war began to take its toll on the defenders. Rations grew short as the siege stretched on. The men were tired from the constant fighting and bombardments. Dysentery and other diseases set in, leaving the men in no shape to fight. By the beginning of September, perhaps 4,000 men were in any shape to continue the fight.

And they were losing. The Turks had captured the outer defensive works, driving the Austrians back to their wall. Some Turkish mines began to reach the walls, and a hole had been blown open. The city stood ready to fall.

And then, something strange happened. The Turkish commander halted the assault. He sent word to the Austrian commander ordering him to surrender. The Turkish commander hoped to have Vienna surrender to him, so he could take the city intact and he could therefore claim all its wealth as his own. But if his troops sacked the city, they would be allowed to keep whatever they took for themselves. He felt certain the Austrian,his garrison dwindling, his walls breached, would capitulate. But the Austrian did not, and sent back defiance. The Turks prepared to continue the fight the next day, the twelfth of September. So fixed were their eyes on the city, none seemed to pay any attention to the campfires that began to burn that night on the hills outside Vienna. They did not know what those fires meant: Jan Sobieski had arrived.

It was said he and his allied commanders looked upon the Turkish encampment from their vantage point. The others were dismayed by the size of the Turkish forces: they outnumbered their own by at least two to one. But Sobieski, who had fought at a disadvantage many times before, laughed. "Look at how he has arranged his camp!" he exclaimed. "The man knows nothing of war!" The other generals wanted to wait and survey the situation before they began their attack, but Sobieski, perhaps believing in the advantage of surprise, insisted they attack at the first light.

As the Turks were prepared to end the siege that morning, all their forces aimed for the breach int eh walls, when they found themselves under attack on their flanks. German and Austrian troops were attacking on one said, and on their rear Polish infantry were driving into their lines, wreaking havoc. The Turkish commander seemed to pay little attention to this. He responded to the attacks with less than half his forces. He kept the main body of his troops focused on the city. Yet the Christians were pushing them back and making more and more headway. And then, on their flanks, the Christian cavalry appeared. Over eighteenth thousand armed and mounted knights, the largest cavalry charge in history. pressed forward. At their head were three thousand Polish Winged Hussars, the finest troops of Poland, and at their head, leading the charge was the king himself. Jan Sobieski, the unvanquished lion, had come personally onto the battle field at last.

His appearance terrified the Turks. They ran and fled before his charge. The troops from the city, seeing the Turks falling into chaos, mounted a sortie from the city themselves, leaving their walls and fighting their foe on the field. And the Turks fled before them. They threw down their arms, and left their baggage and supplies behind as they fled the ferocity of Sobieski and his men.

In three hours the battle was over, the field was in the hands of the Christians and the Turks who had not fled lay dead on the ground. Sobieski sent word to the Pope: "I came, I saw, God conquered."

Sobieski was hailed the saviour of Christendom. The Pope named him Defender of the Faith. Accolades were rained down on him by the allies who had fought alongside him, and by his own men. The commander of the Austrian Garrison hugged and kissed him on the field, and called him his saviour.

That gratitude, unfortunately, did not last. Sobieski's defeat of the Turks at Vienna marked a turning point in history. For the next hundred years the Turks were retreating, not advancing, before the Christian forces. A little over a century after Vienna they had been driven back into Turkey. But if the Turks were gone from Europe, so, too were the Poles, or at least, their country. A little over a century after Vienna, Poland had been annexed by Russia and Austria, the very Empire her greatest hero had saved.

5 September 2017

One further note on the new uniforms for the Knights of Columbus.

I said in a previous post that I am not against changing the fourth degree honour guard uniform as such.  The uniform has been changed in the past and, truth be known, I have a whimsical attachment to the tophat that was worn in the 20's over the modern chapeau.   However, I said that the current change was a misfire.

Since then the Supreme Grand Knight of the order has stated the reasons for the change was to try and draw in younger men.  This, I think, is worse than the actual uniform. The uniform, I said, was a misfire- and attempt that failed to hit its target.  With this, I now believe they were shooting at the wrong target entirely, and for the wrong reasons.

I have seen so very many attempt to change the liturgy, change the mass, change everything about the Church to try and draw the young people in.  They have all failed, spectacularly so.  Why?  Not because they made the wrong change, but because it was the wrong thing to do for the wrong reason, and the motivation, I am sorry to say, betrays a lack of faith.

(Before I get to why this is shows a lack of faith, let me point out one other thing: does no one remember their own youth? Do they not remember how as a youth there was nothing more irritating or condescending than some adult who thought they could relate to us? Some 'old fogey', as we used to say, who was trying to show the kids that they were still 'with it'?)

Some years ago, Fr. Z. posted a letter from a teenager who had been turned off by a recent attempt to draw them into some kind of youth mass.  The priest had bent over backwards to try and speak to the kids at their level, meet them where they were at, and so on.  In so doing he changed the mass to suit his audience.  The teenager wrote to say that the priest had it exactly backwards: the mass isn't supposed to be changed for the people, people are to be changed by the mass.  By reversing the proper relationship between the mass and the people, the priest was, in the words of the teenager, showing a terrible lack of faith.  Had he no faith in the transformative powers of the Mass? 

And so it is here.  We should be arguing our power to change men and better them.   Remember the nuns who changed their habit and thought new vocations would come their way because they had torn down the barriers between themselves and the laity.  'Come join us,' they were saying.  'we're just like you!' And the nuns never questioned why the lay would want to join someone who was no different from themselves, and who had just changed everything to join the lay.  Join us and be like you already are is not a motto to inspire enrollment.

2 September 2017

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain

I read the recent document to come out of the Archdiocese of St John's, Newfoundland.  A pastoral plan, I suppose, though that phrase is not used.  What are used are a lot of current terms and catchphrases.  Here's the first paragraph of the introductory letter, to give you a sense of the document.

With much joy and hope, I received and have accepted the Report and Recommendations from the Archdiocesan Strategic Planning Committee on July 07, 2017. I am pleased now to offer you their report, “A Promise of New Life for Our Archdiocese.” This report will become not only a final report, but also our Archdiocesan Renewal Plan, “A Promise of New Life . . . Courage to Renew.”

Planning committees.... renewal... a plan... a strategic plan... that last term is nice.  Strategy is a term for games and for war.  Generals have a strategic plan when they go into battle, hopefully so they win.  The makers of this plan don't seem to be hoping to win, only to lose at a slower rate.  That's a strategy of sorts, I guess.

There will be much shuffling and reorganizing in the archdiocese, according to this plan.  Amalgamations, transfers, and committees to oversee the whole affair.  What is missing from this plan, at least as far as I saw in my casual glance, was any mention of Jesus, any mention of going out and bringing home the lost sheep, any recognition that they or their predecessors blundered badly at some point, and that it is time to fix the mistakes and perhaps chart a different course.  But especially, no mention of Jesus, and of bringing Christ back to the people.

The document reminded me of a an old Dilbert comic strip.  Wally is speaking to the pointy haired manager.

W:  I don't understand how the new reorganization will help us 'focus on our core business'. Did our core business change, or are you saying every reorganization prior to this was a misdirected failure?

PHM: Wally, when a car gets a flat tire, what  do you do?

W:Well, if I'm you, I rotate the tires and drive home.

Except, in the archdiocese's case, they are surrendering the homes to drive back to.

I am also reminded of remarks made by Msgr Schuler regarding efforts to end the priest shortage in his diocese:  “They’re like people during a famine who wring their hands and discuss how they are all going to starve to death, instead of planting crops.”

Again I say: there is no sense of turning to the Lord, going out and bringing the Lord to the people to be found in the document.  Shuffling the remaining cards in the deck, trying to stop a little bit of the bleeding, ignoring the cause of the wound in the first place.  It's as though they are placing their hope for the salvation of their archdiocese in accounting.

When my mother was alive, and I began to vent my frustration with some priest, or bishop, or other member of the hierarchy, my mother would stop and remind that, instead of criticizing these people, it is better to pray for them instead.  So I will stop here, and ask my readers to pray for the priests and bishops and people of St John's, and for their own priests and bishops.  Ask for the Lord's intervention on their behalf, even if they are not.  Especially if they are not.

31 August 2017

On history

The other day I had a good chuckle at someone's unintentionally hilarious statement.  It was from a teachers' union and their declaration that they wished to have John A MacDonald's name removed from schools.

"Perhaps it is our awareness of history that makes us more sensitive to this," their spokesbeing began.

I couldn't complete the sentence for laughter.  Their understanding of history?  They understand no such thing.

The study of history itself has a long and convoluted history- some take this approach, others find a different way to go about it.  Broadly speaking- very broadly speaking- until fairly recently history was taught along the lines of Great Man/Great Event.  The flaw in this method is fairly obvious to any modern individual who thinks about it for five seconds: the Great Men are almost always, well, men, and the Great Events are almost always European.  Other parts of the world didn't actually exist until a white man showed up and had a look around.  Between the two, only a tiny portion of humanity ever qualifies as historical or has anything written about it.  It is as though they never actually existed.

As a corrective to this style of history, the more modern approach is to study social history, to try and examine the lives of, well, no one in particular but of everyone more or less in general, or as much as can be subdivided into groups.  It is the study of percentages, and of 'forces' in history and nameless, faceless people who existed within certain categories and parameters.

The old way tended tell the story of the great men, but, generally speaking, he would have his foil, the villain of the piece.  Heroes and villains are not the stuff of the social history: the heroes are gone.  The categories are too simplistic for the complex modern scholar, we are told.  Rather, they have a different set of categories: broadly speaking, oppressors and oppressed.  The bad guys without a hero, and their victims.

It is here that the difference perhaps becomes most telling.  The old style of history, for all its faults and weaknesses, did have a virtue and a strength:  it was practical.  The aim of teaching this style of history was to come out in actual practice, to give the students a model and a guide by which to live their own lives.  In our time we have those who ask themselves 'what would Jesus do?'  An educated man of the past would have asked himself 'What would Julius Caesar do? or Pompey? Charles Martel? Scipio? The Duke of Marlborough? Washington? Lincoln?'  They had a host of people living in their minds after whom they could frame themselves, who could guide them at times of trial and confusion.

The new system is the opposite of this: For all its strengths, it has a weakness: it is impractical. First of all, no one really acts in this history: it is just forces travelling in this direction, or perhaps that.  It gives no model to follow, it grants no actual agency.  Between its categories of villains and victims, the only one worth being is the victim, and perhaps for this we now have the spectacle of people arguing who is the greater victim or the real victim, who has the greatest claim to victimhood.  Not that they have done anything, only that worse things have been done to them.  Action is not to be taken as an individual, but only has meaning when done by a group, preferably those on the right side of history, also their creation, also as meaningless and pointless as the rest of it.

Be a hero, said the old system, not a villain.    But we have torn our heroes to shreds, now.  We cannot stand the heroes of the past any longer.  It matters not what great thing they did, or how right they were about this or that, they were unforgivably wrong in something else, perhaps even anything else.  So we erase the good they did, and pretend it doesn't matter because it was completely overshadowed by their ill.  Be a hero, we say now, and have your name dragged through the mud.  We cannot stand heroes now.

Be a victim, says the new system. Only victims are pure.  Victimhood is a sanctifying grace which removes all sins. For now.

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.