Hammering it home: G.K. Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi

I find G.K. Chesterton somewhat frustrating.  He's a great writer, full of inventive turns of phrases and his social and religious commentary is spot-on, but he has a tendency to go on and on, hammering the point to an extent that it becomes tedious.

I'm reminded of Mel Brooks, who can be very funny, but he also has a tendency to milk a gag too much, so that the laughter fades and you look at your watch, waiting for the scene to end.

That being said, St. Francis of Assisi has its going points, and it is not so much a biography as a portrait and an explanation, an attempt to bring an earlier, more vivid view of the world into a jaded, secular materialist frame.

Chesterton's point is that modern audiences simply can't relate to many historical figures because we've been blinded to the supernatural and have a reflexive need to discredit remarkable things.  Even after my conversion, I remained in this mode of thinking, looking for a "rational explanation" for things.

But what if spiritual warfare is the rational explanation?  It's been documented for thousands of years in every culture.  Are they all wrong and we're the Anointed Few who finally get it?  If so, what are the fruits of our knowledge?  What blessings are we finding due to this discovery?

Well, for starters our birth rates are plummeting, our young people are mutilating themselves and committing suicide, societal cohesion is collapsing and by every measure people are finding less happiness and fulfillment than their grandparents did while living on the oppression of religious teaching.

Chesterton picked up on this trend a century ago, and his vindication is complete.  I think that's why his works have such relevance. 

An additional element that makes this book in particular a timely read is the stark contrast between St. Francis (blunt, plain-speaking without a hint of guile) and the pope who has taken his name.  Pope Francis buries his writings in contradictions and ambiguity, leaving even his supporters wondering what they are supposed to be defending.  The recent fiasco surrounding blessing "irregular relationships" is but one of many examples.

St. Francis of Assisi could quiet flocks of birds with a kind word, and fearlessly approached mighty leaders, even trying to convert one of the caliphs.  Quite the contrast.


Sickness teaches us to appreciate being healthy

I woke last night with a low-grade fever and growing body ache.  I rarely fall ill, so this was something of a surprise.

However, as I sit in a comfy chair, sipping tea and struggling to type, it occurred to me that when I get better, I'll feel much happier about it than I did yesterday.

Since the Exile from Eden, people have always taken things for granted, and in reading the life of St. Francis of Assisi, G.K. Chesterton stresses how the saint always kept a sense of wonder and joy around him.  That's one reason why modern people have a hard time understanding him or even accepting his existence.

We're to the point where we regard bitter, ungrateful and cynical people to be normal, while people who approach life with a child-like expression of joy are assumed to be mentally ill.

I don't know that there's ever a good time to get sick, but this certainly meshes well with my current reading.

A lot of bother about blessings

For reasons known only to themselves and God, Pope Francis and his allies decided to issue a new doctrinal letter just before Christmas declaring that blessing "irregular" (read: sinful) relationships was okay so long as it was spontaneous and done in a casual setting.

This was in direct contradiction with an earlier directive from 2021, which stated very clearly that one cannot bless sinful things - to do so is blasphemous.

Because the clergy was wholly absorbed in the celebrating the Nativity of Our Lord, reaction was uneven, but with the festivities largely concluded, a great many Church leaders are making their opinions known.

They are not happy.

One of the weird elements of the letter was its insistence that this policy was universal and that bishops could not intervene.  I don't know who thought that was smart to put down in writing, but it was guaranteed to provoke a negative response.  Thus we have various bishops, archbishops, cardinals and even entire conferences of bishops forbidding these blessings within their territories.

Because the Catholic Church incorporates various rites, these groups have also stated that they will not comply.  The Eastern Orthodox Catholics, for example, do not do "non-liturgical" blessings, so it was a non-starter for them.

Things got so bad, that a second letter was released, walking back much of the first letter while also doubling down on the concept.  For example, the first letter said the prayers should be spontaneous and not use a set formula; the second letter contains a recommended formula.

The larger lesson from this is that - contra much secular and Protestant propaganda - the Pope is not an absolute dictator of the Catholic Church and "Papal Infallibility" was created to limit rather than extend Papal directives.

Another lesson is that the heart of the Church is to be found in parishes, not the Vatican.  Liberal Catholicism is dying, and the fleeting triumph of Francis' elevation is about to fade away.  The young men coming out of seminary today are fiercely devoted to tradition, and feeble attempts to denounce the Latin Mass or smear American Catholics as reactionary are only strengthening their faith.

While many commentators are upset by this whole affair, I find it helpful insofar as it is very clarifying.  It's important to know where people stand, particularly when those people hold positions of authority in the Church.  We now know exactly which bishops and priests want to endorse sexual perversion and promiscuity.  That will prove very helpful going forward. 

For years, the laity has been monitoring the clergy, and 'vigilante' groups troll hookup apps, hunting down priests and reporting them.  I'm sure similar lists are being prepared for those performing these blasphemous blessings.

This episode also illustrates why "nice" Christianity is a dead end.  You cannot encourage people to reform by telling them that sin is okay.  What this does is reinforce sinful behavior and increase resistance to the necessary repentance.

Indeed, by reinforcing the sin, "affirming" clergy like Father James Martin, S.J. is actually putting the souls of sinners at greater risk.  Such people will have much to answer for at the time of judgement.

What makes the whole episode so laughable is that we've already seen the "embrace the sinner" model in action for decades with the Church of England.  Changing doctrine has brought schism and emptied the pews. 

Indeed, G.K. Chesterton wrote about this a century ago, which is why one cannot help but think the stated goal, isn't the actual goal.  Yes, people can remain remarkably stubborn in their ignorance, but they also use ignorance as a shield for something more sinister.  At this late date, it's a distinction without a difference.  Hiding behind good intentions in for Yard Sign Calvinists, not Orthodox Catholics.


Through the eyes of a child

One of the blessings our family is enjoying this year is the age of the grandchildren.  They are two and three, so the elder remembers something of Christmas and is looking forward to it.  The younger doesn't, but is thrilled by the elder's inspiration.

This is as it should be.  We live in a world that has been largely stripped of its wonder.  Everything is broken down into either "science" or a moral hierarchy based on Yard Sign Calvinism, which has no room for childish joy and delight.

There is no whimsy in "woke," nor can there be sentimentality or nostalgia, because the present must always sit in judgement on the past.

The Spirit of the Age demands that the past be rejected, and that children be forced into adult decisions such as birth control or sexual preference before they have any conception of what these things are.

But here at Chateau Lloyd, we can shut all of that out.  Safe from social media and even the internet, the grandchildren can live as the generations before them lived - in a world they can touch, see, smell, taste and hear.  The wood burning in the fireplace is something unknown to them, and they experience the same mysterious fascination that our ancestors know as they watch the flames wax and wane, and the logs slowly turn to ash.

The Christmas tree is a thing new and mesmerizing, full of light, color and - as they are told - memory.  Is that really Mommy in that little picture?  Do you mean Grandpa was a little boy once?

Part of the power of holidays is how we pass them on to the next generations, creating the same sense of awe that we knew when we were young.  As we grow older, many of us are tempted to cut corners, and in some ways this is as it should be.  Christmas is about the birth of our Redeemer, not getting presents at deep, deep, discounts.

But there need be no conflict in economizing and preserving the spectacle and sensation of Christmas.  Lighting the Advent candles, preparing the Nativity - all of these create a sense of something special beyond the mere exchange of gifts.  The older I get, the more I focus on these, rather than the presents, and my chief happiness is seen in the eyes of the children.



The secular-fueled religious revival

There's an unmistakable upturn in religious sentiment in the air.  The Catholic Church has (largely) cast aside its rainbow flags and tolerant language and is breaking out the holy relics and talking about the perils of hell again.

The Protestants are feeling it as well, and I've noticed that the various "geek culture" sites I follow (and write for) are talking more about faith and its role in entertainment.

In fact, The Chosen is releasing its fourth season in theaters before streaming it.

While Hollywood doubles down on heresy and sin, normal people are turning away from it.

I think a major cause in this remarkable turn of events is the way secular society has completely destroyed its legitimacy.  Growing up in the 80s, there was a certain sense that religiously observant people were boring and uptight and devout ones were a little bit mad.  The proper attitude was one of somewhat detached reverence, but not overdoing it.

This secular view has been completely discredited.  One can't call religious people nuts and in the next breath declare biological sex irrelevant to athletic competition.  One can't wave the banner of science while punishing skeptics for demanding more exacting research.

It's now no longer unusual to talk about people being moved by demonic impulses because it's the only logical explanation. 

Look at the current state of Yard Sign Calvinism.  People who had "No Blood For Oil" and "Give Peace A Chance" now howl for Russian blood.  Or Jewish blood.  The point is: they want blood.

The language of tolerance and inclusion has been replaced with militancy and threats.  Again, one might well call that demonic.

None of this is new.  G.K. Chesterton wrote at length about the irrationality of "rational" people.  It's just stunning to see it up close and taking root so quickly.

The epitome of arrogant self-help: Richard Schwartz's No Bad Parts

I have read a fair number of pop-psychology and self-help books, always under duress.  I've found my archetype, identified my color and learned my language.

None of has mattered in the least because it's just the same warmed-over feelgood nonsense.

That being said, Richard Schwartz's No Bad Parts really does stand apart from the crowd.  I don't think I've ever read a book that combines such monumental arrogance with laughable ignorance while purporting to give expert advice.

In only 14 pages, the author declares that he has more wisdom than the Church Fathers and more insight than Buddha.  This is like the scene from The Princess Bride where Vizzini asks the Man in Black if he's heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates.


"Morons," Vizzini replies.

That's Schwartz's view of the world.  He's figured out the key to mental health, and he's also divined how to bring about world peace and solve all our other problems.  As the book progresses, he takes a less dismissive tone towards religion, modestly informing us that his methods are actually true manifestations of Buddhist thought as well as an interpretation of Christian philosophy that Jesus Christ would be happy to endorse.

It's the kind of book that both Evelyn Waugh and G.K. Chesterton have mocked, so the genre is actually quite old.  It's funny how these miracle methods keep popping up and yet people are ever more depressed.  Maybe, just maybe, there are limited to what secular analysis and treatment can do, and a vaguely spiritual worldview isn't enough to deal with the existential issues of life.

Of course, Schwartz isn't nearly as smart as he thinks he is, especially when it comes to religion.  His summaries of Christianity is a comedy of misunderstandings, but combined with his air of absolute certainty, one must either hurl the book through a window or burst out laughing.

Then there are the transcribed therapy sessions, which remind me of the role-playing examples given in Dungeons and Dragon books from 40 years ago.  It's unclear if their purpose is to show off the doctor's amazing therapeutic manner or just pad the page count, but I found them insufferable.

Aside from humor value, the book does contain about 14 pages of insight, chiefly near the beginning when it discusses the terminology used for various conditions.  That was genuinely helpful, but I could have gotten it from a pamphlet or web site. 

The relics of St. Jude, Apostle of the Impossible

Today my parish hosted a visit by relics of St. Jude the Apostle.  This was my first encounter with a reliquary and I was not sure what to expect.  Plans were in place for large crowds, but since it was on display from 1 to 10 pm, I timed my visit for what I presumed to be a lull at 2, presumably after the opening rush of pilgrims had left.

In the event, there was not much of a line, though there were quite a few people there, praying in adoration or awaiting Reconciliation.  Thus, my daughter and I were able to move at a steady pace through the improvised lanes in the sanctuary and up to the reliquary itself, which was protected by a glass and wood case. 

I was not sure what to expect when I put forth my hand to touch the glass, and I am still struggling to describe the sensation.  It was like a chill, but not cold or sharp, nor was it warm.  It left my slightly dazed as I touched our household holy water fount to the glass and made my way to a pew to pray and regain my composure.  With prayers completed, we left.  My daughter said she felt a sense of euphoria and a surge of energy.

When we got home, the "second shift" left with my wife taking another daughter (we were babysitting the grandchildren), and they each felt something different.

As a convert to Catholicism, I found the veneration of relics difficult to accept and more than a little macabre, but as the day approached, I resigned myself to accept the Church's teachings and roll with it.  Too many people today consider themselves the final authority on everything, and refuse to humble themselves before the wisdom of their ancestors.  I've criticized this before, and did not want to make myself a hypocrite.

I will say that it was meaningful, profoundly spiritual and I am glad I went.  I'm beginning to understand why people become pilgrims, seek out holy relics and devote their lives to their study and veneration.

After 1,300 pages, I've finished the Max Saunders biography of Ford Madox Ford

That was a long book.  There are big books that feel big, and books that don't.  This felt big, and the problem was that Saunders not only went into excruciating detail about his subject's movements, incidental friendships and even meals, he also broke up his narrative with extensive discussions of Ford's literary works.

I tallied 83 pages on on the Parade's End series, which is fine in terms of criticism, but if you want to find out more about the author, it's a heck of a digression.

I'm also going to call Saunders out for being a truly impressive fanboy.  I like Ford's work, admire his turn of phrase, but I'm sorry, Last Post was a clunker of a book, and there's a reason why Graham Greene did not want it included in his reprint.  As he points out, the book was not part of the original scheme of the work and was added on later to explore what happened to Tietjens and Miss Wannop.

Having read the biography, it's pretty clear that Ford is creating an idealized version of his postwar life, one starkly at odds with what eventually happened.  Ford should have updated it ten years later, including Wannop's bastard child and the fact that Tietjens has abandoned her for another young woman and regularly keeps his eye open for new talent.

Saunders desperately tries to excuse Ford, emphasizing his art over his morally abhorrent behavior (well, this was written in the 1990s), but there is no inherent contradiction between moral uprightness and literary worth.  G.K. Chesterton was a brilliant writer as was J.R.R. Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh.  Waugh had a wild youth, and was by no means the model father, but he didn't abandon his wife and children and let himself constantly be led astray.  There was quite literally no woman he had a relationship with on whom he did not seriously consider cheating.  The only reason he remained true to his final mistress, Janice Biala, was that he was too ill to consummate any more adulteries.

To his credit, he never truly abandoned his Catholic faith and tried to raise his children in the Church. 

Though the work is quite long enough, I would have liked to see less literary analysis and more about his extended family, including his illegitimate daughter and his brother Oliver, who pops into and out of the narrative without much explanation.  An epilogue on his descendants would also have interested me.

Instead, Saunders - like his subject - regarded Ford's death as the end of the line, and wrote no more.


The allure of paganism

Over the past week, commenter CN has deftly woven together two of the themes of this site - the corruption of Christianity and the complex personality of Ford Madox Ford.

The discussion of Jewish women indulging in neo-paganism reminded me of a consideration of paganism from a few years ago.

As I said then, paganism offers much that appeals to our contemporary culture.  It's bold, transgressive, and  it eliminates bothersome boundaries. 

The primary weakness is that once one casts aside restraint, why bother with religious ritual at all?  I think for the Boomer generation, there was something of a thrill in going to church in a bathrobe and slippers and the Gen X crowd went even farther by getting all tatt'd up and "blessing" same-sex relationships.

But why bother with all that?  Why not sleep in on Sunday?  The truth is that classical paganism actually had lots of rules and required frequent acts of devotion.  All those marble temples were used; they weren't just empty monuments to be admired.

This is why I think it is no accident that much of paganism is concentrated within the global church rather than rising outside of it.  This would of course fit in with the Enemy's designs of outright blocking the path to salvation by corrupting Christ's message and misleading His servants.

But even that thrill seems to be fading.  In places where Woke Christianity reigns triumphant, church attendance is almost undetectable.  It's interesting that the Anglican population of Wales (which needs six bishops (most of them female, of course), could fit into a mid-sized sporting area. 

Whether "observant" or not, a frequent recourse is to the display of virtue.  The old amulets and shrines have now given way to a bumper sticker or yard sign, hence closing the ring between neo-paganism and Yard Sign Calvinism.

For students of history, there is a dreary familiarity to all of this.  Just as the same worn-out heresies keep cropping up in new wrappings by people who think they've just invented the wheel, so the same old sins get repackaged as virtues.  Waugh, Chesterton and of course Tolkien all saw it, and it's still going on today.

Something to keep in mind as the latest "new neo-pagan" thing emerges.

When profit is no longer the motive

I'm old enough to remember when "corporate greed" was regularly denounced as the greatest of all evils.  The profit motive was synonymous with environmental destruction, unsafe working conditions and every manner of harmful behavior.

This was exemplified during the 1980's movie Wall Street, when arch-villain Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) famously pronounced "Greed is good."

The context of the film was that Gekko was a ruthless corporate raider and he was using labor concessions on a recently-acquired airline to boost its stock only to break it up and sell off its assets.  The maintainers, support staff and pilots would all lose their jobs to that a rich man could make himself even richer.

With the benefit of hindsight, the problem was not greed per se (which will always be with us) but an incentive structure that laid a premium on short-term gains over long-term profitability. 

Now, however, we have a new problem, which is that greed is competing against social virtue-signalling, creating an even more toxic situation.  This is a species of Yard Sign Calvinism, where the primary goal is to show the virtue of the people in charge; whether this benefits society as a whole is besides the point.

For example, No Mow May was supposed to boost pollinators, but the lawns that went wild have since been cut and - thanks to a mild drought - are now dead.  A far better option was to simply plant flowering plants and let them remain year-round.

What if the same skewed values prevailed in commerce?  Well, one would see profitable enterprises - and the jobs that sustained them - squandered merely for a passing boost in social status.  Gekko's corporate raider capitalism shifted wealth from one group to another; Yard Sign Calvinism destroys it for "likes" on social media.

I think the former is therefore preferable to the latter because the final determination of profit can be shaped by legislation (such as the tax code) but also by people voting with their dollars.  A robust customer boycott can not only cause the company directly affected to change course, but influence others as well.

But if the company's leadership sees itself as being part of a great moral cause, the boycott might actually harden their determination to maintain their fixation.  I think this is the case in entertainment, where CEOs are incapable of course corrections on failing franchises because they covet social approval more than dividends.  In their case, greed would be a virtue.

G.K. Chesterton long noted the fanatical devotion of many alleged "free thinkers" to various causes, and their willingness to use any amount of someone else's money to feel good about themselves.  He wrote satire, but now it's all to real.

I miss the robber-barons.