Evening choir practice

My wife and I go for walks in the evening since it helps her sleep.

Near the end of our walk we went down an unlighted street with an Episcopal church on the corner. The weather was cool, the houses looked neat and tidily landscaped in the starlight. I heard a faint piano and thought, “Choir practice!” After 9:00? Sure enough, the piano was followed by voices. Not a familiar song but a pleasant, calming melody. Stained glass showing bread and chalice. Cool, post-Halloween air. Christmas not far off.

I love Autumn! Got to appreciate it while it’s here!

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Medieval civilization: Who you calling savages?

Most of us know what was the accepted general version of English history when we were at school; at any rate when I was at school….

England had emerged out of a savage past to be the greatest empire in the world, with the best-balanced constitution in the world, by a wise and well-timed progress or series of reforms, that ever kept in mind the need of constitutionalism and of balance. The Barons had extorted a constitutional charter from the King, in advance of that feudal age and a foundation for parliamentary freedom. The Commons came into the struggle for parliamentary freedom when it was waged against the Stuarts. By that time the Revival of Learning had led to the Reformation or sweeping away of the superstition that had been the only religion of the ruder feudal time. This enlightenment favoured the growth of democracy; and though the aristocrats still remained, and remain still, to give dignity to the state with their ancient blazonry of the Conquest and the Crusades, the law of the land is no longer controlled by the lords but by the citizens. Hence the country has been filled with a fresh and free population, made happy by humane and rational ideas, where there were once only a few serfs stunted by the most senseless superstitions.

I ask any one if that is not a fair summary of the historical education in which most modern people over forty were brought up. And having read it first, we went to look at the towns and castles and abbeys afterwards, and saw it or tried to see it. [William] Cobbett, not having read it, or not caring whether he had read it, saw something totally different. He saw what is really there.

What would a man really see with his eyes if he simply walked across England? What would he actually see in the solid farms and towns of three-quarters of the country, if he could see them without any prejudice of historical interpretation? To begin with, he would see one thing which Cobbett saw, and nobody else seems ever to have seen, though it stared and still stares at everybody in big bulk and broad daylight. He would find England dotted with a vast number of little hamlets consisting entirely of little houses. … And the town is a very little town; often only a handful of houses to be counted on the fingers.

In the midst of this little cluster or huddle of low houses rises something of which the spire or tower may be seen for miles. Relatively to the roofs beneath it, the tower is as much an exception as the Eiffel Tower. Relatively to the world in which it was built, it was really an experiment in engineering more extraordinary than the Eiffel Tower. For the first Gothic arch was really a thing more original than the first flying-ship. … Its distant vaulted roof looks like a maze of mathematical patterns as mysterious as the stars; and its balance of fighting gravitations and flying buttresses was a fine calculation in medieval mathematics. …

The whole building is also a forest of images and symbols and stories. There are saints bringing their tales from all the towns and countries in Europe. There are saints bearing the tools of all the trades and crafts in England. There are traces of trade brotherhoods as egalitarian as trades unions. There are traditions of universities more popular than popular education. There are a thousand things in the way of fancy and parody and pantomime; but with the wildest creative variety it is not chaotic. From the highest symbol of God tortured in stone and in silence, to the last wild gargoyle flung out into the sky as a devil cast forth with a gesture, the whole plan of that uplifted labyrinth shows the mastery of an ordered mind.

It is the parish church, and it is often very old; for it was built in the days of darkness and savage superstition. The picturesque cottages are all of much later date; for they belong to the ages of progress and enlightenment.

If people saw the Great Pyramid and found scattered about its base a few patchwork tents of a few ragged Bedouins, they would hardly say there had been no civilisation in that land until the Bedouins brought it. Yet a Pyramid is as plain as a post of wood compared with the dizzy balance and delicate energy of the Gothic. If they had seen some dingy tribe of barbarians living in their little mud huts, when high above their heads went the soaring arch of a Roman aqueduct almost as remote as the rainbow, they would hardly say that the Romans must have been savages and that the savages alone were civilised. Yet the round Roman arch is really rudimentary compared with the prism of forces in the pointed Gothic arch.

But the truth is that the Catholics, having some humility even in their hatred, never did make this absurd pretence that paganism was barbaric, as their enemies afterwards made the absurd pretence that Catholicism was barbaric. They denounced the wickedness of the world, but they recognised the Pyramids and the Coliseum as wonders of the world. It was only the great medieval civilisation whose conquerors were base enough to pretend that it had not been a civilisation at all.

G.K. Chesterton, William Cobbett (1910).

More on self-sacrifice and renouncing self-will

Self-will is the inclination to do our own will. On account of the corruption of human nature self-will is usually opposed to the will of God and is defined as such by spiritual writers. As heaven is the reward for doing God’s will, detachment is necessary for all. Children must renounce their will to obey their parents; citizens, to abide by the law of the land; and Christians, to become worthy brethren of Christ. Those, however, who seek perfection, must make the holy will of God their own in all things before they can say with Christ, “I do always the things that please him” (John viii.29). In fact, in proportion as we do God’s will we work for heaven, and in proportion as we do our own will we have our reward in its gratification. “Why have we fasted, and thou hast not regarded; why have we humbled our souls, and thou hast not taken notice? Behold, in the day of your fast your own will is found” (Is. iviii.3).

Peter Geiermann, The Narrow Way: A Brief, Clear, Systematical Exposition of the Spiritual Life for the Laity, and a Practical Guide Book to Christian Perfection for All of Good Will (New York: Benziger, 1914).

(H/T to Saintly Sages.)

Natural law, family and society

In what natural law theory regards as a rightly ordered society, most people marry, and marriage typically results in children, and lots of them.  This in turn creates a large social network of people known personally to one – lots of brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, and so on – on whom individuals can fall back in times of need.  Divorce is stigmatized, so that children generally have stable homes and discipline, and they and their mothers generally have a reliable provider.  Elder family members are looked after by the new generation, just as they looked after that generation when it was in its infancy.  Elder members also find ongoing purpose in helping to raise their grandchildren.  In general, the good of the family takes precedence over the desires of the individual member.  And this subordination of self-interest to the common good of the family makes people more sober and realistic in their expectations, less selfish, and better able to achieve a contentment that is deep and lasting even if not as titillating as running off to begin a second or third marriage.

Contrast that with the contemporary mentality, which regards sex and romance as primarily a matter of self-fulfillment, rather than having self-sacrifice for the sake of children and family as its natural end.  Whereas the traditional arrangements commended by natural law subordinated the short-term interests of the individual to the long-term health of the family, the modern mentality subordinates the long-term health of the family to the short-term interests of the individual.  Naturally, solidarity is weakened [and this weakened solidarity extends to the society as a whole].

Edward Feser, “Liberty, equality, fraternity?“, Edward Feser blog, October 10, 2017.

The martyrdom of Pope Saint Stephen

“I am sorry, Sir, that we interrupted your Mass, but we really do have to kill you because Valerian is our emperor and he says so.”

“Oh, yes,” said Stephen, “I quite see that.”

“But we thought,” said the Minion, “that we could kill you here and now, with your own people, so that you needn’t go back to Valerian.”

“How kind of you!” said Stephen. “May I just go to Confession first?”

“Anything you like,” said the Minions, and they waited while Stephen went to Confession. When he was ready he went and sat on his Pope’s Throne and the Minions came very Politely and cut off his head, and all the people cried. But Stephen went straight to God and thanked Him very much indeed for letting him die so quickly and easily.

Joan Windham, Sixty Saints for Boys, New York: Sheed & Ward (1948).

Random quotes

“Truth implies freedom, because in the regime of freedom an arbitrary authority cannot impose dogmas according to its good pleasure: the human mind is at the same time subject to truth and free because of it.”

Chantal Delsol, “L’idée d’Université”, quoted on Siris, October 10, 2017.

“Wilder Penfield, an early-twentieth-century neurosurgeon who pioneered seizure surgery, noted that during brain stimulation on awake patients, he was never able to stimulate the mind itself—the sense of ‘I’—but only fragmented sensations and perceptions and movements and memories. Our core identity cannot be evoked or altered by physical stimulation of the brain.

“Relatedly, Penfield observed that spontaneous electrical discharges in the brain cause involuntary sensations and movements and even emotions, but never abstract reasoning or calculation. There are no ‘calculus’ seizures or ‘moral’ seizures, in which patients involuntarily take second derivatives or ponder mercy.”

Michael Egnor, “A Map of the Soul“, FirstThings.com, June 29, 2017.

“Political correctness is a serious problem, and it has an authoritarian tendency. … It is an obligatory, enforced participation in a fluid, liquefied moral world. We are told that we are not required to think or live in any particular way—except that we can’t think or live in ways that constrain, compromise, or even throw doubt on anyone else’s free decision to think or live differently. Taken to its logical extreme—everything is permitted as long as it permits everything—this becomes a paradoxical totalitarian toleration that is all the more dangerous because it deludes those who promote it into thinking that when they drive all dissent from the public square, they are ‘including.'”

R.R. Reno, “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism“, First Things magazine, October 2017.

Song of the Day

I thought that I’d outgrow this kind of thing.
Tell me, aren’t we supposed to mature or something?
I haven’t found that yet.
Is this as grown-up as we ever get?
Maybe this is as good as it gets.
And the years go by,
But I think the heart remains a child.
The mind may grow wise,
But the heart just sulks, and it whines,
And remains a child.

Everything But the Girl, “The Heart Remains a Child” (1996).