Chesterton, Dante, and the Disciplines of Lent

Here is a talk I gave yesterday, February 13, 2023. I opened with the lame excuse that my library is still in boxes in storage, and thus I had to write this mostly from the top of my head. Also, as is necessary with a talk of this sort, my historical comments are broad generalization. For the most part, I’m taking these gross generalizations from Chesterton. That understood:


The work that most defines Chesterton high schools, that most guides and inspires us, is G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. Chesterton wrote it in response to H. G. Wells’ Outline of History, which is Wells’ attempt to deemphasize, denigrate, if not out and out remove, Christianity and especially Catholicism, from mainstream history. 

Unfortunately, Wells was very successful. Only Catholics, and only some of us, seem to be willing to say much of anything positive about the Church’s role in history. The Everlasting Man is a detailed argument for why Wells and his myriad followers are wrong from the get go – they misunderstand and misrepresent man in fundamental ways, misunderstand and misrepresent man’s religious impulses, are confused about what a church is, and in general, seem baffled and confused by the common experiences of common people.  

And that’s before we even get to Jesus! If you have any interest at all in understanding  our schools and the task we have had set for us, please read The Everlasting Man. It’s not an easy book, but the payoff is high. 

I’ll circle back to Chesterton throughout this talk. For now, we take up the same challenge Chesterton did in his response to Wells: describing truly that oddest and most surprising of creatures – us. I think he would agree that the best place to look for understanding of human beings would be the poets, and that the best poets are Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante. 

An aside: some people may want to shoehorn Milton, Virgil, maybe Goethe, in there. Some people broaden the definition of poetry to include the opening of the Gospel of John, which to me is in its own class, not to be lumped in with mere human invention. But when it comes to human genius, especially as applied to understanding human  beings, I’ll stick with my Big Three. 


I chose to talk about Dante, specifically his glorious Purgatorio, because in a week we will be entering Lent. That great poem is about Lent. All of Dante, no matter how appalling or uplifting, is about people here and now, in the real world. The Purgatorio is the most beautiful account ever written about the struggles of people in the Church Militant, even though its matter is the Church Suffering. We who want to be holy, who want to be saved, who want to be able to endure seeing God face to face – the Purgatorio is our story. 

The poem takes the form of a medieval allegory. On the surface, this should be a little terrifying – allegory is usually a pretty unwieldy and blunt tool, so a long allegory about the afterlife should not be expected to be a particularly gripping tale. Another medieval example of religious allegory, written 60 years after Dante, is Piers Plowman. If you read that first, you might lack the stomach for even trying another one! Piers Plowman has all the grace of getting hit over the head with a 2 X 4, and all the art of a battering ram. 

The saving grace of the Purgatorio is Dante’s genius. In his hands, allegory is like a paintbrush or even a scalpel. He illustrates and lays bare. Not that he doesn’t whack the reader over the head once in a while, but, in general, he is more subtle and always more beautiful. 


The world out of which Dante crafted the Divine Comedy, the high Middle Ages, requires a little clarification for us modern readers. In his beautiful biography of St. Francis, Chesterton identifies the beginning of the truly high Middle Ages with the activities of the great Italian beggar. The suffering of the late Roman Empire, the darkness of what modern historians call Late Antiquity, was, in Chesterton’s view, a required purging of the evils of the late stages of Paganism. In Everlasting Man, Chesterton speaks at length about the more simple, more mythological forms of paganism, which are not in themselves particularly evil. But as time goes on, the tendency for a more practical paganism, one directed towards Getting Things Done, ends up with actual demon worship, with Carthage and the rites of Moloch. The world, particularly the civilizations built on the shores of the Sea in the Middle of the Earth – the Mediterranean – had been steeped in such horrors for millennia. Both the prophets of Israel and the sturdy peasants of Rome hated and despised this demon worship. Tyre and Sidon, lands where Jesus himself tread, were home to rites of making infants “pass through fire” – while drums were beaten to drown out the screams. Carthage, hated and ultimately destroyed by the Romans, was their independent colony, Not independent enough to abandon the demon worship of its mother cities, sadly. 

While the Empire, at peace under Augustus, had put an end to these practices, it had no way to exorcise the demons. Such evil can only be driven out with prayer and fasting. (Mk 29; Mt 21). The Church, in its penitents and saints and monks and hermits, struggled and suffered with what looks at times like a grim asceticism, from around 400 AD to St. Francis’s time in the eleven hundreds. The exorcism, according to Chesterton, was finally achieved in the Middle Ages. A new spirit of joy was bodied forth in the Little Friar of Assisi. 

Stating that St. Francis was not grim is like saying the sun is not dark. With the little beggar, the Church was dragged into a new age, the age of growingly flamboyant and playful Gothic buildings and art, of love songs and organum growing into polyphony, of study growing into recognizable sciences, of applied technology much greater than anything known to the ancients. And of a new thing under the sun – the medieval university. 


More context. The Medieval Warm period lasted from about 900 to about 1300. This is significant, because almost everything we call the Middle Ages was born and first flowered in this timeframe. With more predictable and warmer weather and longer growing seasons, and the introduction of improved technology, the population of Europe is estimated to have quadrupled over those 4 centuries. The heavy wheeled iron plows, iron tired wagon wheels, much more efficient horse harnesses, the practice of growing oats to feed to your horses so that you could work them harder and longer, and a myriad related developments – meant that the work of peasants was much more productive. Life was not as tenuous as it had always been everywhere before, where, as one English historian put it, population was “harvest sensitive” – one bad harvest, and the weak died off, and the population fell. Populations in the Middle Ages were not quite so harvest sensitive. 

More and more land was put into production – those strong, well-fed horses could pull those heavy wheeled plows through dense muddy soil, and grow more and more food and feed more and more people. Other horses could pull heavy wagons loaded with foodstuffs and rolling on iron tires, into the towns and villages. More people living more secure lives allowed for the development of commerce and social orders more human and stable. The whole great and highly varied set of systems known as feudalism flourished. 

Francis died in 1226; his slightly older contemporary, friend, and fellow mendicant Dominic Guzman died in 1221. Each founded religious orders. While Francis had little interest in and even less talent for organization, the Spaniard was an organizational genius. Thus, the various offshoots of St. Francis’s orders quickly strayed from his humble vision and fierce orthodoxy, requiring papal intervention and reorganization, and even condemnation of certain of Francis’s followers as heretics, St. Dominic’s orders still to this day largely follow his original rule. 

Both Franciscans and Dominicans figure strongly in Dante’s story, by the way. I will bring this digression back around to the point in a minute. By the time St. Dominic died, his first great intellectual disciple was somewhere between 16 and 27  years old. Brother Albert, known in his own time as the Universal Master and in our time as St. Albert the Great, took Dominic’s passion for learning in the service of God and wed it to his native intelligence, to become the most formidable intellectual of his day. Until he was overshadowed by his star pupil. 

St. Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225. After his harrowing escape from his family and their well-intentioned desire to keep their well-born son away from these new, rather gauche mendicant orders – see Chesterton’s The Dumb Ox for details – he fell in with Albert in Paris. By 1250, young Thomas was already a famous teacher who soon eclipsed his own master. 

Now that the demons had been exorcised by centuries of prayer and fasting, a scholar could safely dive into pagan literature without too much fear for his soul. Thomas famously baptized Aristotle, following here the lead of his teacher Albert. For centuries afterwards, every educated man and woman (and the universities trained hundreds of thousands of men and thousands of women) would have to know his Aristotle to participate in any learned discussion. The properly educated student could make rigorous arguments, spot the logical flaws in his own and others’ arguments, and weigh the degree of certainty any proposition warranted. 

Dante was born into this world in 1265, and thoroughly educated in it. St. Thomas died in 1274 when Dante was 9; St. Albert in 1280 when Dante was 15. The shadows, or more properly, the daylight,  of these two giants most definitely fell across Dante’s life. The Purgatorio and indeed the whole Divine Comedy is imbued and enlightened by Dante’s Dominican education. His constant references to the stars and geography and geometry, which might seem pedantic to us moderns, gave verisimilitude to his contemporary audience, who likewise had fallen under the grace or spell of the great Dominicans. 

But much more important and telling, Dante chooses Reason in the person of Virgil to be his guide through Hell and Purgatory to the threshold of Heaven – very Thomistic choice. Virgil’s explanations and expansions on their journey are little examples or extracts of the Questions Method used by the Dominicans, where a question is stated, all the arguments against laid out, and au contraire issued, and then the counter arguments presented, The master would then wrap it up with a concluding statement. Virgil teaches Dante and us using what might be called the Questions Method Lite, but the bones of the full Method still show through.  

Yet while Dante is fully a product of Dominican education, in his religious life, one might even say in his emotional life, he is expressly a Franciscan. Dante joined the Franciscan  third order. There is even a curious scene in the lower levels of Hell, where, in order to summon the monstrous embodiment of Fraud and use it to catch a ride to the bottom of the Pit, Virgil instructs Dante to undo the rope around his waist – the belt symbolic of his membership in the Franciscans – and cast it in. No commentator I’ve read makes a convincing argument about what this is supposed to mean. The drama is real enough – Dante meant something by it – but exactly what is unclear. 

One can truly say that both the great founders of the two great mendicant orders are present on every page of the Divine Comedy. Virgil, as Reason itself, speaks mostly for the Dominicans; but Dante’s soul is formed and honed by the joyful yet stern asceticism of Francis. His empathy or horror, disgust or sorrow, at the fates of the souls he meets in the Purgatorio and especially the Inferno seem to me to more strongly reflect the Heart of the little beggar. Two stories from the life of Francis will have to do as illustrations, where Francis and Dante would perhaps most agree on an emotional level. Peaceful, loving Francis spared no disgust at priests who would let their altar linens get dirty – the very idea that one would call down Our Lord and Savior in the Eucharist without having done everything in his power to prepare a proper reception infuriated him. And the better known story about Francis returning from a trip to find his brothers had built a very nice building for themselves, much nicer than he thought appropriate. So the saint climbed up on the roof, and began in a fury tearing off roofing tiles with his bare hands. 

I think Dante would be in solid agreement with these actions. 


Dante was a minor, relatively impoverished Florentine noble. He nonetheless took a very active role in Florentine political life. When his faction fell out of power in 1301, he was exiled. He spent the rest of his life living on the generosity of others, and writing his Divine Comedy. After the first book, the Inferno, came out, many in Florence were eager to welcome the now-famous poet back home. But the leaders of his beloved city put conditions on his return that Dante, proud son of Florence that he was, simply could not comply with. He never again returned to his home. 

Dante died in 1321, shortly after completing his Paradiso, the final book in the Divine Comedy. A few years earlier, In 1315, the Medieval Warm Period came to a dramatic end. Europe north of Italy and Spain suffered one of the worst famines in recorded history. For almost 2 years, it rained in what is now Germany, France, and England. It was three years before any crops were grown, Anything like normal productivity did not resume until 1322. While millions starved to death, the more disheartening damage was an almost universally weakened population – even the survivors were likely near death. Farms were washed away; work animals were eaten or starved to death themselves. A weakened, impoverished population was forced to rebuild. 

Northern Europe never quite recovered. A mere 25 years later, in 1347, the Black Death swept through Europe, killing from 50 to 60% of everybody, perhaps as many as 200 million dead. 

The rich commercial and political culture built over the previous 400 years did not survive. Local population numbers often did not recover to pre-plague levels for many centuries. In place of complex local loyalties and duties, war and unrest spread. New, less human and humane structures took their place. Heroic efforts were made to restore the old order, and the Middle Ages did, according to some accounts, limp forward for another century and a half. 

But the world of Dante had died. 


On that depressing note, we return, finally, to the Divine Comedy. 

Dante was the first writer, prose or poet, to give a thorough and coherent account of Purgatory. Christians from the beginning, and even Jews back at least to the Maccabees, had believed in the importance of prayers for the dead. Once you accept that the dead can benefit from our prayers, the question arises: where are the souls of the dead? Over the centuries, a concept of a purgatory developed: the souls of the dead who escaped damnation yet are still trapped by the effects of their sins undergo sufferings to purge them of those sins. Our prayers can help them, just as our admonitions and prayer could help them here on earth. 

But there it sat for centuries. If forced to describe Purgatory, a typical response from before Dante wrote would have been something like ‘just like Hell, except the souls eventually get out.’

Such a description was completely unacceptable to Dante. Comparing the state of saved but not perfected souls to the fate of the damned offended both his Dominican and Franciscan sensibilities. One can almost imagine his fist slamming down on the table at the very thought, like St. Thomas Aquinas in intellectual battle with the Manichees. As a man educated by Dominicans, the irrationality of imagining Purgatory as a kind of Hell offended him. As a third order Franciscan, the lack of Divine Love in such an understanding of Purgatory was unacceptable. No, the souls in Purgatory are saved! The must – MUST – be filled with a joy beyond anything any of us who is not a great saint can imagine. 

Souls in Purgatory are saved! Therefore, they joyfully accept the Will of God, and embrace their sufferings, that they might see Him face to face. In Purgatory there will be none of the wailing and despair of Hell; none of the hatred of one damned soul for another. Instead, the saved but impure souls love and support one another, and sing the praises of God! 

In addition to Catholic traditions, Dante had before him a couple pagan descriptions of the afterlife, most centrally Virgil’s account of Aneas’s visit to the underworld in the Aeneid, book VI.  Virgil becomes the obvious choice to lead Dante through Hell and even Purgatory, as he’s theoretically been there, as the author of Aneas’s journey. 

The afterlife crafted by Virgil, the virtuous pagan, bears little similarity with Dante’s Christian understanding, except perhaps in the idea of Justice. In Virgil’s underworld, the punishment more or less fits the crime; those pagans who are virtuous after their fashion, are reincarnated. The suicide Dido, for example, suffers nothing like what the suicides in Dante suffer, as killing oneself is not the horror to pagan Romans as it is to Catholics.

Reincarnation is right out for Dante. But Virgil’s image of the souls waiting for reincarnation has some slight echo in the souls in Dante’s ante-Purgatory, waiting for their true cleansing to begin. 

In building his Purgatory, Dante begins with the story from Revelation 12,  where Satan and his angels are swept from the sky. Dante imagines Satan flung with such force that he is embedded in the earth at its exact center, leaving a conical crater above him. The circles of Hell are along the inside of this cone. Dante’s journey through Hell takes him down to the center of the earth from one circle to the next.

This cosmic impact of Satan is imagined to have taken place where Jerusalem sits now; thus Jerusalem sits above Hell, buried deep in the earth. On the direct opposite side of the earth, in the vast ocean Dante imagines covering the Southern Hemisphere, the material displaced by Satan and the cone of Hell raised up a mountain. This mountain is Purgatory. The Pit is for the damned, but God brings good even from the fall of Satan by creating from that fall the mountain by which repentant sinners can climb to Heaven. 

The symbolism is clear: the damned descend into the pit until the worst sinners are near the Father of Lies and farthest from the Heavens; on the diametrically opposite side of earth, a mountain is raised by which repentant souls might climb toward Heaven. The central part of Medieval cosmology that is often confused here: the earth is imagined as the center of the Universe, yes, but much more importantly, earth is imagined as the farthest point from Heaven. The center of the earth, the very center of the universe, is occupied by Satan! Climbing a mountain takes one both closer to God and further from Satan. It is not pride that imagines the earth as the center of the Universe, at least to Catholics. 

The mountain of Purgatory is surrounded by hilly plains and ocean shores. The repentant are delivered to Purgatory on a boat driven by an angel, just as the damned were carried into the heart of Hell on a boat driven by Charon, conceived by Dante as a demon. The repentant must ascend to a gate guarded by another angel in order to enter Purgatory proper. Above the gate are seven terraces, one for each of the Seven Deadly Sins. On top of the mountain, nearest to Heaven, is the Earthly Paradise. 

While the top and the bottom of the mountain are very interesting, here we will focus on the active repentance taking place on the terraces of the Seven Deadly sins. 

Dante describes rules for the repenting souls: 

  • Only in the light of day can the souls move up the mountain. 
  • Once through the gate, looking back will land you back outside, and you must start the whole process over. 
  • The penitents decide when they are cleansed, and then move on to the next terrace. Nothing other than their own knowledge of their sins keeps them on any particular terrace. 

Dante hammers home the first point above by falling asleep as night falls on the slopes outside the gate to the terraces. He dreams an eagle lifts him to the fiery realms of heaven, only to set him back down on earth. He awakes to find himself at the gate. Virgil explains that, as the morning started to break, St. Lucy – her name means Light – came down from heaven and carried him to the gate. For we can make no progress in our repentance without the light of Grace, but must wait out the inevitable periods of darkness. 

The second point above recalls Lot’s wife. Under the new dispensation, those who look back are not turned to pillars of salt, but merely need to start over. 

The final point emphasizes that repentance is an act of our wills – stirred and aided, of course, by divine grace. The Divine Wisdom is not punishing penitents in Purgatory, but helping them reach the point where they could endure the full glory of heaven! 

The angel guarding the gate holds from Peter the two keys, one of gold, the other of silver. He has been instructed to err rather in opening than in keeping shut. This angel uses the point of his sword to mark the forehead of Dante with 7 wounds in the shape of the letter ‘P’ – for pecatta, or sins. He is told that he must do penance until he has healed the wounds symbolized by the letters cut into him. 

In a scene as close to humor as Dante usually allows himself to get, the angel uses the keys of Peter to unlock the gate to Purgatory proper, which groans and screeches on its hinges. As the Esolen translation puts it: 

And as the sacred portal’s pins and bolts,

Forged of strong metal, of a booming tone,

Were twisting in the hinges no such groan

And stubborn grinding came when Caesar forced

The good Metellus to give up the vault 

On the Tarpeian Rock…

So seldom do we fallen humans commit ourselves to repentance that the gates to Purgatory are practically rusted shut. Here Dante uses, as is his habit, stories from history or mythology to illustrate his point. Caesar was on campaign and out of cash, and raided an old temple treasury, whose gate had not been opened in many years. Then, following the practice of Virgil, he asserts that what’s happening in his story is *greater* than what happened in history and legend – the groans of those rusty temple treasury gates are as nothing compared to the screeching of the neglected gates of Purgatory.  

Of course, there’s a deeper layer. There always is with Dante. Just as Caesar raided a temple to get treasure for his war, each repentant sinner who enters the gates of Purgatory has discovered the treasure needed to win his war against sin.  

Once through, Dante hears – barely – unseen voices singing the Te Deum – the ancient prayer sung at Matins, the liturgical office prayed in the morning before sunrise. The hymn begins: 

O God, we praise you; O Lord, we acclaim you.

Eternal Father, all the earth reveres you.

All the angels, the heavens and the Pow’rs of heaven,

Cherubim and Seraphim cry out to you in endless praise:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts,

heaven and earth are filled with the majesty of your glory.

For a Catholic, repentance is fundamentally liturgical – the work of the people of God. The souls in Dante’s Hell hate and curse each other. Part of their punishment is being stuck with other people they don’t like. But souls in Purgatory, repentant souls seeking mercy and healing, rejoice in the company of their companions. Prayer is a constant in their lives; praying together, especially praying the Church’s formal liturgical prayers, is not just natural, but makes up the solid core of their repentance. 

The Te Deum is a hymn of God’s glory sung just as the sun begins to bring light to the sky. It is only in the light of God’s grace that the penitent can hope to make any progress. The souls beginning their purification join with the whole Church in thanking and praising God, and walk in his light. 

Now Dante and Virgil are properly on their way. Each terrace, or step of repentance,that they encounter shares these characteristics: 

  • Upon first reaching the terrace, a scene from the life of Mary illustrates the virtue that lies opposite the sin being purged.  
  • Then follows a scene from secular history or mythology also illustrating the virtue
  • A liturgical prayer is being sung by the penitents or unseen voices
  • The purifying act is introduced – the penitents are shown to be repenting
  • Examples of the sin and its destructive power are witnessed as Dante and Virgil make their way counterclockwise around the terraces. 
  • Finally, an angel guarding the climb up to the next level uses the tip of his wing to gently erase one of the letters P from the penitent’s brow. Penance for that sin has been completed; the symbol of the damage done by that sin is removed, and the penitent is ready to attempt the next terrace. 

The terraces are arranged such that sins are tackled in a logical order. The first and last terraces, for purging the sins of Pride and Lust, respectively, mirror the arrangement in Hell, where Satan’s pride is punished at the very bottom of Hell, and the lust of Paolo and Francesca is punished at the very first and highest circle of Hell proper. Pride separates one from God and neighbor in a profound way, making one’s self a god, and so must be beaten down first before any other sin can be overcome. The ever popular sin of Lust, on the other hand, is at its roots near to Love – a perversion of a good thing, and therefore a lesser sin and easier – not easy, by any stretch, but easier! – to correct. It can wait, in other words, while Pride has to be dealt with before any progress can be made. 

Here’s the full batting order: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice and Prodigality, Gluttony, and Lust. 

While I  had originally planned to touch upon each sin and its cleansing, that is probably too much detail for a talk like this, and – would you look at the time! Instead, I will focus on three sins, and encourage you to read the Divine Comedy over Lent. 100 Cantos of between 130 and 160 lines each. Read 2 to 3 Cantos a day, 15 to 20 minutes of reading, and you’d get through the whole thing in 40 days. Or just focus on the Purgatorio, get a translation with good notes – I like Sinclair’s excellent notes – and spend some time learning who all these Italians were, what all the classical references refer to, and what the battles of Dante’s day were all about. Less than 1 canto a day! 

Although I haven’t done so for the last few years, for many years I reread the Divine Comedy as my Lenten reading. I won’t kid you – it’s not an easy book, especially at first. It is full of obscure – to us – historical and mythical figures, and features Thomistic digression about once every other Canto. It assumes a familiarity with medieval Italian politics few possess. So you will need an edition with good notes, and a willingness to spend the time reading them. Beach reading it is not. But I think it’s worth it. 

Moving on – 


After Dante and Virgil pass through the gate, they must climb up a steep and treacherous path in order to simply get to the starting line. Virgil in his role as Dante’s reason, must cajole and encourage Dante to keep moving. The path is compared to a needle’s eye, an uncertain zig-zag, no straight shot. Thus the path looks to those suffering from pride.

Finally, exhausted, Dante reaches the first terrace. It is as lonely as a desert path, so little do men repent of their pride. He sees carved into the path, with art so great the images appear to Dante to move and speak, the Annunciation, the ultimate act of humility and surrender to the Will of God: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” Repentance from Pride begins with the great drama of Mary’s fiat. 

Stories of pride and humility from the Old Testament follow, and then a legend about the Emperor Trajan, who humbly gave in to the pleadings of an old woman for justice. The Old and New Scriptures, as well as secular history, are brought to bear. 

Dante is delighted at the images, and needs Virgil to interrupt him to point out the penitents themselves. They are reciting the Our Father, praying that God’s will, not theirs, be done. Not for themselves do they pray – that blessing was lost when they died – but for us, the living!

The penitents of this terrace each carry a huge rock on their backs that cause them to be bent double. Instead of standing proud and tall, their sin makes them bow nearly to the ground. Dante, who was a very proud man, also bends until he can talk face to face with the penitents. This is the first example of Dante revealing his own sense of his sinfulness – in this canto, he clearly identifies with, and assumes the posture of, the penitents. 

The exhausted penitents, weighed down by their sin, plod along, forced to see as they walk the images carved into the floor – the Annunciation, Trajan’s humility, and many illustrations of the wages of the sin of pride. One penitent notes that he must carry this weight here because he would not carry it in his earthly life. 


After talking with a couple of his proud fellow Florentines, Dante and Virgil are directed to the next stairs to the next terrace. Dante cannot bear to look directly at the angel guarding this passage – the reflected glory of God in this member of the heavenly household is too great for his sinful eyes. Virgil assures him that the strength of his vision will grow as he repents. 

The touch of the angel’s wing wipes the first P from Dante’s forehead. The climb to the next terrace is much easier, now that he’s been healed from his pride. 

As they reach the next terrace, hidden voices fly by and cry out: “They have no wine!” and “But I am Orestes!” Mary, always selfless, feels for the poor host of the wedding at Canna suffering the embarrassment of running out of wine. According to the myth, Orestes was about to be condemned to death for the revenge murder of his mother and her lover, when his friend Pylades stepped forward and declared he was the real Orestes. The two friends fought for the honor of dying for the other. Selfless love is the opposite and antidote to envy. 

The sin of envy is close, in some ways, to the sin of pride, and thus comes second. The twisted inability of the envious to take any pleasure in the blessings bestowed on others is a poison that soon spreads. The sinner grows more and more isolated and bitter. 

The penitents on this terrace are weak and immoble, sitting leaning against the cliff wall and each other. They cannot even so much as sit up without the help of other people. Their eyes have been sewn shut with iron wire, a practice used by falconers when taming their birds. They envied what the saw in life, and so have lost that power until the sin is purged. Their livid clothing blends in with the stone of the terrace and cliff. All are one. They are forced into companionship and away from any individual show. 

Blind, unmoving, weak, but now part of a community precisely as they could not be in this life because of their envy, the penitents recite an endless Litany of the angels and saints! Everything on the terrace of the envious moves them to recognize and praise and be thankful for others! 

Here Dante merely mourns for the suffering of the sinners, but does not share in it much. He remarks that he will be little detained on this terrace, but he’s seriously worried about that last one! Not too envious, but very proud. 

Another angel heals another P, and the climb to the next terrace is easier still. 

Dante and Virgil move on through Wrath, where the penitent must live in a blinding smoke, Sloth, where they never stop moving, Avarice and its twin Prodigality, where the sinners lie face down on the pavement, admiring the dust that so occupied them in life, and gluttony, where the souls fast while being tempted by delicious fruit. None of these sins hits Dante very hard personally – then we come to Lust.


“All around this ring,” Virgil warns Dante, “You’d better keep a tight rein on the eyes. One small misstep, and you’ll have gone astray.”  Right. On this circle, the repentant sinners walk in a fire that hugs the cliff face, leaving only a narrow path along the precipice. Dante must either plunge into the fire, or walk a narrow and dangerous path. 

As they quickly move through the fire, the sinners sing Summæ Deus clementiæ, God of Greatest Clemency, a hymn sung at Saturday matins – again, like the Te Deum in the circle of Pride, sung just as the sun begins to light the sky. The most relevant section: 

Do Thou in love accept our lays

Of mingled penitence and praise;

And set our hearts from error free,

More fully to rejoice in Thee.

Our reins and hearts in pity heal,

And with Thy chastening fires anneal;

Gird Thou our loins, each passion quell,

And every harmful lust expel.

When the souls reach the end of this hymn, they all cry out “But I have not known man,” acknowledging Mary’s holy virginity and the proper ordering of sexual desires to the divine Will. Then, 

Returning to their singing, 

they would cry of wives and husbands who were chaste and lived 

as virtue’s laws and marriage both demand.

Dante was after all a married man and father. The next moment, a group of people come from the opposite direction from which the first group came. When the two groups of souls meet, they greet each other with a holy kiss, and then get on their way – the souls must practice proper physical contact in order to defeat their desire for sinful physical contact! The souls then shout Sodom! Gomorrah! before continuing their way.  

Dante puts those who repent from *any* kind of lust on the same level – all are sinners who need to reorder their desires in accord with God’s Will. This is in keeping with the Church’s ancient understanding – we all need to repent. No one is beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness. 

An angel appears, singing “How blest are they, the pure of heart!” He advises Dante and Virgil: 

Holy souls, you pass no further on, 

Unless you are bitten by the fire. Come, enter, 

And turn no deaf ear to the hymns beyond.

Virgil pleads at length with Dante – the fire may be painful, but it won’t hurt you. It is for your own good! Do it! Finally, Virgil plays his trump card: you want to see Beatrice again? Then you must endure the flames. 

Dante finally plunges in. 

The blazes there inside did so surpass

All measure, that to feel the cool again,

I’d have flung myself into boiling glass

The angel eventually wipes the last letter P off his forehead. Dante is now free from sin and ready for Heaven. 

Concluding remarks

The formula Dante lays out for repentance and purification in the Purgatorio, although expressed with great art, is not much different than what one should expect from a solid confessor: turn to Mother Mary, practice the opposite virtue, pray with the Church in her Liturgy (the sacraments are implied here, but, since they are no longer available to the Church Suffering, Dante doesn’t expressly mention them). Do penance! Be constantly aware of the evil of your sins so as to avoid temptation! Dante gives this wise guidance a beautiful poetic and theological foundation. 

The Purgatorio is not just a masterpiece of poetic imagination. It is also a great theological achievement. As Chesterton describes it in a number of places, particularly in Orthodoxy and his biography of St. Francis of Assisi, penance had taken on a rather grim aspect in the last days of Rome. In the lingering shadow of the more demonic late stages of paganism after the decline and fall of Rome, the Church’s saints and other leaders tended to emphasize the evils of the world and seriousness of repentance. It took centuries, but the demons were exorcised from a natural world that had grown unnatural. Starting in the 12th century, a great blossoming of the Church and human culture spread across Europe. The greatest example and engine of this flowering was St. Francis. After he had called the Sun his brother and the Moon his sister, after he had tamed the wolves and preached to the birds, Christians were brought back to the joy that God intended for us. To be sure, the little barefoot beggar prayed hard and always, and subjected himself to disciplines that would make most hermits blanch. But – here’s the thing – he embraced his mortifications with endless, irrepressible joy. 

At the same time, the followers of another great saint helped reestablish the Church’s ancient intellectual traditions. Dominic’s great followers – Alburtus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas – looked at the same freshly scrubbed world as Francis, and saw that it was good. They found the Joy of God lurking in every detail and argument. 

Finally, Dante Alighieri, son of minor Florentine nobility and a proud and ambitious poet, the intellectual son of Dominic but a Franciscan at heart, set out to write that new world. Of course, evil had not miraculously vanished, but, as Chesterton might put it, the mirth of God had finally managed to peek through. So Dante first describes the evil in the world – his Inferno, which is much more about this world than the next. But that is only one third of the Divine Comedy. Fully 2/3rd is about salvation and glory. In particular, the Purgatorio lays out for us what true repentance looks like. True repentance is a source of great joy! We lean on and sing with our brothers and sisters, we support each other with prayer, we rejoice in the light of God. We see the world, for the first time, as it is. 

Holy Saturday: My Ass is in a Ditch (Luke 14:5-6)

Being a little flippant on this, the day of the Great Silence, but that’s the truth. I’ve got 6 days to finish packing up and moving out of this house, and so hope to keep a prayer on my lips as I work like a dog to get it done. My beloved and our beloved son, as well as our daughters and son in law and one very dear friend have also put in some serious work, but we’ve run hard into the 80-20 (or is it 90-10?) Rule: packing up the last 20% is 80% of the work. This post will be brief, rushed, or both.

First up, Dante: in Canto IV of the Inferno, as they leave the Limbo of souls who earned no punishment but gained not Heaven, he asks Virgil one of the enduring questions of Christianity. Is there no hope for souls separated from Christ through no fault of their own? Unbaptized infants, virtuous pagans (like Virgil himself) and those to whom the Word has never been preached? Specifically, has no one from Limbo ever been saved?

Here there was no sound to be heard, except the sighing, that made the eternal air tremble, and it came from the sorrow of the vast and varied crowds of children, of women, and of men, free of torment. The good Master said to me: ‘You do not demand to know who these spirits are that you see. I want you to learn, before you go further, that they had no sin, yet, though they have worth, it is not sufficient, because they were not baptised, and baptism is the gateway to the faith that you believe in. Since they lived before Christianity, they did not worship God correctly, and I myself am one of them. For this defect, and for no other fault, we are lost, and we are only tormented, in that without hope we live in desire.’

When I heard this, great sadness gripped my heart, because I knew of people of great value, who must be suspended in that Limbo. Wishing to be certain in that faith that overcomes every error, I began: ‘Tell me my Master, tell me, sir, did anyone ever go from here, through his own merit or because of others’ merit, who afterwards was blessed?’

Dante, Inferno, Canto IV, From Poetry in Translation, translated by A. S. Kline

Virgil answers straight out of medieval mystery plays:

And he, understanding my veiled question, replied: ‘I was new to this state, when I saw a great one come here crowned with the sign of victory. He took from us the shade of Adam, our first parent, of his son Abel, and that of Noah, of Moses the lawgiver, and Abraham, the obedient Patriarch, King DavidJacob with his father Isaac, and his children, and Rachel, for whom he laboured so long, and many others, and made them blessed, and I wish you to know that no human souls were saved before these.


Elsewhere in the Inferno, features of Hell are described as ruins: bridges over ditches, walls, the Gates of Hell itself has been blown off its hinges. This seems odd, given the inscription over the Gates:











“…and eternal I endure.” One might expect, after Plato, that eternal things are unchanging and unchangeable, pretty much by definition. But no – in an Incarnational universe, even the Eternal is shown to change – out of love. Virgil explains that a great earthquake shook Hell on the day One came to save some souls out of Limbo, and damaged even Hell. Even in the wreckage of Hell, or perhaps especially in the wreckage of Hell, the God Who so Loved the world is revealed. He has entered time for our sake.

The Gates of Hell not prevailing.

Today is often referred to as the Great Silence, for here on earth we recall the lull in Incarnational activity: The world slept in darkness until Christ came, then was riled, enraged, and murderous until Christ had been entombed, then fell silent while Christ descended into Hell. Now, all the noise and insanity of the world is caused by the Prince of this world again fighting vainly against the New Heaven and the New Earth. The battle rages even though the outcome is known. We are the lowliest foot soldiers in this battle of Principalities and Powers, but we all have our parts to play. About as weak and small a person imaginable, a peasant Jewish teenage mother, in her holy humility has crushed the serpent’s head, after all. We also must do our parts.

Now, back to packing up.

Two Odd Books: Pilgrim’s Progress & the Iron Chamber of Memory

Keeping with the pattern of switching back and forth between the Current Insanity and Anything Else, let’s discuss two books I just happen to have read at the same time.


The above definitions are somewhat useful. What one wants to be able to say is when something is not an allegory – the essence of a definition. With the broadest stroke of the definitions above, one can possibly say that the work under consideration is not symbolic, and, therefore, not an allegory.

(Sorry for the digression here. I thought I knew what allegory is, but then made the mistake of thinking about it, looking it up, and now have to sort through it. The interwebs are indeed fields of rabbit holes.)

Made the mistake – woe is me! – of visiting the Oracle Wikipedia, and thus fell into a cesspool of woke:

As a literary device or artistic form, an allegory is a narrative or visual representation in which a character, place, or event can be interpreted to represent a hidden meaning with moral or political significance. Authors have used allegory throughout history in all forms of art to illustrate or convey complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners.

People way too big for their britches

One little phrase removes all usefulness from this thing: “…can be interpreted to represent…” Thus, any possibility of saying what is or is not allegory is banished, in favor of everything being an allegory if it merely can be interpreted to represent something else, a feat any college sophomore can perform with ease on absolutely anything. Cafeteria food in an allegory for control exerted on the masses by structural oppression. I’m oppressed by the paucity of avocado on my toast …. And so on. (1)

Then, since logical consistency is a social construct of an oppressive white patriarchy and thus must be violated, we shift the grounds back to the intentions of the author, by which we mean ‘artist’ – there I go with that consistency thing again! – thus contradicting the original ‘definition’, which is based on the interpretation of the consumer of art: “Authors have used allegory throughout history in all forms of art to illustrate or convey complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners.”

Now we possibly need a college junior to explain how this contradiction is suspended but not resolved in a synthesis, but I haven’t had breakfast yet, so we’ll stop. Suffice it to say: if allegory is something the reader or viewer reads into something, then there’s no definition possible – no one can say what is and is not allegory, or rather, everything is allegory.

Back in the real world, we’re not completely freed from this muddiness even if we look to the author’s intent. Often, authors don’t express their intent; often they will say that there’s more to their works than what they, themselves consciously put there – maybe the work is allegorical even if that’s not what they were thinking at the time. But at least in some cases, we can say: Pilgrim’s Progress and Animal Farm are allegories. Those two stories were intended by their authors as allegories, and are really not open to any other, contradictory, interpretation. The character of Christian IS any Christian pilgrim; the pigs ARE the Russian Communist leadership. There’s practically no story if they’re not.

Unfortunately, at least from a tidiness point of view, few books fall this neatly into or out of this category. Is Dante’s Inferno allegorical? Of course! Is is completely allegorical, like Pilgrims Progress or Animal Farm? No. There are real characters throughout who are meant primarily as themselves, and only secondarily as stand-ins for the sinners as a class. Paolo and Frencesca are two real people, not just illustrations or symbols. Christian and the pigs have little if any personality apart from their symbolism.

Then there is the concept of a natural symbol, where its symbolic content fundamentally rests in the nature of the thing. Sometimes, symbol versus sign is used, with symbol having a connection by nature to the thing symbolized, while signs are merely conventional. Unfortunately, English does not really support that distinction, in that people have long used both those terms for both those concepts without distinction. Too bad.

The classic example: red, the color of fire and blood, symbolizes those things and things related to them by nature; a stop sign is conventional – there’s nothing about red hexagon that means ‘stop’ by nature (we had to write ‘STOP’ on it to get the message across initially), but red is the right color (or among the right colors) for a sign that needs to grab people’s attention in order to function. A lovely sky-blue stop sign would seem wrong, and not just by convention.

Allegory will be stronger the more it employs natural symbols rather than signs whose meaning is not connected to the thing it is a sign of by anything other than convention. Paolo and Francesca are blown about against their wills, which wills they had surrendered to their passions. Leaves in the wind is a good natural symbol for that situation….

Sigh. All this wandering around just to talk about two short books.

I found myself reading Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory, because it was mentioned on John C. Wright’s blog and I realized I’d never read it. Wright stated that it is probably the only allegory out there that can be read on its artistic merits. We’re not talking about the use of real, flesh-and-blood characters (or, at least, characters written so that we might imagine them real) to represent, more or less consciously on the part of the author, ideas or social problems or what have you. Rather, Pilgrim’s Progress characters have names that ARE their characters: Christian, Faithful, Hopeful, Little-faith, Ignorance, Worldly Wiseman, and so on. There’s very little to even the main characters beyond what you might guess from their names.

Bunyan was a Puritan preacher who spent a good chunk of his adult life in jail for refusing to stop preaching Puritanism. 17th century England oscillated between the established church tolerating ‘heretics’ and throwing them in jail or worse. Bunyan’s life straddled a couple of these peaks and troughs. He is assumed to have began writing Pilgrim’s Progress during one his extended stays in prison. It became an instant classic, translated into over 200 languages and hardly being out of print since.

Buyan’s skill is in how he uses his various allegorical figures and places to illustrate his Puritan theology. He sees this story in a series of dreams: A Christian, a husband and father, is visited by Evangelist, who warns him to leave his home town, City of Destruction, and pilgrimage to the Celestial City carrying a heavy burden on his back. His family thinks him crazy, so he leaves them.

The rest of the story concerns Christian’s journey to the Celestial City, the places he visits or avoids, how he is tempted and aided, who he meets along the way, the fates of those whom he meets (spoiler: his companion Faithful is martyred – this is good, in context, the greatest good in fact; Hopeful completes the journey with Christian, while Little-faith, a character in a story within a story within a dream, eventually makes it. Ignorance fairs less well.)

Conclusion: it is a good story to read, both for a Christian and for anyone who wants insight into how Puritans think. In some ways, the person treated most harshly in the book is Ignorance. He comes off worse than many of the active sinners and tempters, with more pages spent having Hopeful and Christian harangue him than are spent on any other single topic. We look back to Bunyan to understand this: he is a Puritan preacher, hell fire and brimstone style. His enemy is Ignorance, meaning people who do not understand or who reject the central themes of Calvinism. The damned are the damned – you give converting them a shot, then move on. But the Ignorant, those who travel the same path you are travelling but are doing it WRONG – they are the real challenge.

In Bunyan’s dream, Ignorance shows up at the Pearly Gates all alone. He knocks, and – it is not opened unto him. Rather, the agents of the King ask to see his papers – scroll, certificate – proving he is among the elect. When he fails to produce them, he is bound by two angels and cast into Hell. So a guy who left everything, followed the path, rejected or escaped from temptation, and saw his journey to Heaven through, is damned because he DID IT WRONG!

Despite all its protestations to the contrary, Calvinist Puritanism remains as legalistic an expression of Christianity and anyone could hope to find.

Ignorance is an annoying character, so sure that if his heart doesn’t trouble him, he has not erred. He is confident that, since he left everything, went on the pilgrimage, and did the required good works along the way, that he is going to be admitted to Heaven. Hopeful and Christian go after him hammer and tongs, because he is not embracing his utter depravity and relying entirely on the completely unearned and undeserved Grace of God as expressed in Jesus. Ignorance repeatedly says he does not understand what they mean by that idea. He loves Jesus, and follows His commandments – isn’t that enough?

A Catholic Pilgrim’s Progress would be Dante’s Divine Comedy. But say a lesser Catholic poet tried his hand at doing the allegory Bunyan-style: first, Sacraments and Saints would be essential characters, accompanying the pilgrims on their way. Major time would be given to those church officials who have failed in their callings – you know, all the bad popes and clerics that populate Dante’s Hell – and the damage they do and their unpleasant eternal fates, how to identify and avoid them, how to honor the offices without succumbing to the evil of the office holders. There would be Good Pastor and Bad Pastor, Patron Saint and False Saint. The Cloud of Witnesses would include all those people by whom God, as secondary causes and in order to have His glory reflected by creatures made in His image, passed the Faith all the way down to Christian.

But mostly, there would be Purgatory. Ignorance would knock, and the doors would be opened, and he would finally SEE. In that moment of searing clarity, all the errors of his ignorance, all his pride and foolishness, would be clear to him – and he, himself, of his own will, would seek to hide from the Face of God. Yet God, in his infinite mercy and love, would not cast out one who had tried, who made the effort however badly, and who has endured the journey. Thus, to the singing of choirs of angels rejoicing that another soul had been saved, Ignorance would be carried to the foot of the mountain of Purgatory, to be purified of his pride.

I gave a one-paragraph review of John C. Wright’s Iron Chamber of Memory when I first read it back in 2016, and mentioned I’d do a full review of it later.

It seems now is later.

This review will be abstract, as spoilers would be a terrible thing. You just need to read this book. It begins as a tale of unrequited, and unrequitable, love: the girl our hero loves is engaged to marry his best friend, and his sense of honor makes doing anything to frustrate those plans unthinkable. Yet, the two of them keep bumping into each other alone, without her fiancé, even so far as meeting up at the manor house on the Isle of Sark, which said fiancé has recently inherited. Through a hundred little nudges and coincidences, they end up at the door of a particular room within the manor house, and…

Stuff happens. Increasingly insane stuff, stuff that starts out uncanny and moves on from there, until – really crazy stuff happens. A story that starts out as a tragic romance, a love triangle between two best friends and the woman they both love, ends up involving a number of saints and mythical creature.

And I’m afraid I must leave it at that. The setting for the story – the very real Isle of Sark – is, in real life, about as romantic and epic a place as exists on the planet. A little island off the coast of France, the last feudal fief in Europe, pirates, caves, foot paths with 300′ drops on either side, Nazi conquest and resistance, ancient farms, ancient families, the world’s only Dark Sky island – awesome.

As for the allegory bit that I started writing about – well, it spoils it pretty intensely. So, I recommend reading the book before reading this little bit, because the plot twists, if you can call them that, are epic, and this will ruin it.

You’ve been warned.


In the final chapters, it is revealed that the Rose or Red Room is only the first enchanted layer of memory, that there are several nested rooms. When deep enough in, enough memory is restored, that Hal Landfall, the main protagonist, is revealed to be Henwas Lanval, a Knight of the Round Table who had been seduced by the sea fairy Tryamour; Laurel du Lac is the fairy Lorelei, who aimed to seduce and destroy Hal, Manfred is a monk and magician named Mandragora. Depending on whether each character is in or out of a chamber of memory, and on which chamber of memory each is in, they “know” who they are very differently.

So the question naturally arises: What is real? What is really going on? The soul of Manfred, in the innermost chamber of all, speaks of dreams, of how everything we see in this life is shadows and confusion, we have forgotten who we are. Only the saved soul sees the long line of triumph back through to Adam, of souls that have done well and who still do well. Henry really is a great knight fighting a great battle. He just thinks, in his forgetfulness, that he is a student working on a Master’s thesis. He is part of a great army protecting what is really important.

Is something in there an allegory? Is the whole story? I tend to think it doesn’t matter. What is different: Wright’s characters are people first, warts and wings and all; Bunyan’s are allegories first, and only accidentally people, if they are people at all.

  1. Oops – not an allegory – it’s the literal truth that the paucity of avocado on my toast IS the me being oppressed by the avocado -hoarding patriarchy. If I understand the approach correctly.

From Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial:

(From a comment I left at John C. Wright’s blog.)

“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which in the providence of God must needs come but which having continued through His appointed time He now wills to remove and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him. Fondly do we hope ~ fervently do we pray ~ that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

We are the land of abortion, and of many other sins that cry out to Heaven for vengeance. Let us pray:

Heavenly Father, hallowed be Thy Name. Trembling, we today plead that You remember Your promise of mercy, a promise You made to Abraham and his children forever, a promise fulfilled in Your Son. Do not hold our sins against us, for, then, who could stand? Instead, for the sake of Thy Holy Name, for the glory of Thy Son, in the power of Thy Spirit, send Your heavenly host, lead by Holy Michael, commanded by their Holy Queen, flaming swords drawn, to cast Satan and his foul minions out of our fair and blessed nation, back into the pit. Strengthen us for battle, for whatever part Your Holy Will would have us do.

Thy Will be done. Amen.

Christmas: Feast of the True Presence

This post may be of interest to my Christian brothers and sisters who are not Catholic, as it may give some insight into what we crazy Papists are up to.

Sandro Botticelli, The Mystical Nativity (1500-1501). Go here to enlarge this to see the details.

This nativity has it all: Angel choirs dancing above the stable; Faith, Hope, and Charity perched on the roof. To the left, an angel directs the Wise Men to the Babe; an overwhelmed and elderly Joseph (the typical medieval way he was imagined) sits bowing near the Infant. Mary, on her knees with folded hands, worships her newborn Son while the ox and ass look on. To the right, another angel directs two shepherds.

Below, three people are being embraced or perhaps lifted up by angels, cheek to cheek. Seven little demons flee, several impaled on the instruments of torture they carry.

Except for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, all the people are crowned or are being crowned with laurel – the crown of victory. The fat little Baby is reaching for his mother and sucking his fingers.

Subtler details: the stable is a cave, a part of the earth. Through the back of the cave one sees a beautiful forest – Eden-like, even. The scale of the forest seen through the cave doesn’t match the forest to the left, as if it’s not part of the same scene.

Although Botticelli was a Renaissance master, he still uses the medieval vocabulary of symbols. Christ was born not merely on the earth, but in the earth. He is not something added to the surface, but rather of the matter of our order of Creation. The ox and the ass in the same way are representatives of Creation itself worshipping the Son. Eden, which is the proper, intended order of Creation for Man, is visible through the cave, where Heaven and Earth meet in the Person of Christ. The veil is drawn back, so that angels rejoice and demons flee.

Ave fit ex Eva, as the medievals were known to say: the ‘Ave’ with which the angel greeted Mary is made from Eva, the pure and innocent Mary saying ‘yes’ replaces the pure and innocent Eve saying ‘no’. Through Mary, God restores, and then some, the proper order of Creation as remembered from Eden. The whole scene captures the wedding of Heaven and Earth, of angels and men, of earthly and heavenly creation.

There is a combination of general representatives and specific individuals. Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, the Wise Men, and Shepherds are particular individuals we know from the story; the angels and the three men at the bottom of the picture are representatives of Heaven and Earth; the men in particular invite us to read ourselves into the scene.

The people for whom this picture was painted would understand that intended part of their reading of themselves into the story is the acceptance of a God-given role – Thy Will be done. Mary is glorious because she perfectly accepted God’s Will for her – the glory is all God’s, but she is its perfect mirror. In the same way, Joseph’s humble, silent acceptance of God’s Will makes him glorious by reflected light. Even the ox and ass are glorious in a similar way, although they act only as extensions of the human beings who raised them and put them in the stable. But that’s what we do – glorify God by how we use the gifts He entrusts to us.

Or how about this one:

Adoration of the Shepherds, Georges de La Tour c. 1644.

Here, the artist uses a conceit – an unseen candle held by Joseph but shielded by his hand from us – so that he can show Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds lit by the reflected light of the Christ Child, the actual source of light in this picture.

A thousand years later, these ideas, of a cave, of light, of God-with-us Emmanuel, of our place in God’s scheme, of the meeting of Heaven and Earth and the redemption of all Creation, found expression in a thousand church interiors all across Christendom.

We’re used to well-lit interiors, thanks to Edison, but, as designed and used, the interiors of churches necessarily share much with the cave of the stable. In Gothic churches, during the day, at least, light enters filtered by stained glass; at night, only candles and lamps provided light, which would seem very dark to us.

But it is through that cave that we see the new Eden, lit by the Light of Christ.

The cave is also the Tabernacle of the New Covenant, the Holy of Holies, containing Jesus. Yet it is the only the second tabernacle. Mary, greeted by Elizabeth as ‘the mother of my Lord’ – the queen, in the usage of the time – is the first and primary tabernacle, the Holy of Holies as a person. Her humility is perfect, meaning she accepts the role God has given to her with complete abandonment of herself – full of grace.

Yet, because she holds nothing back and gives all to God, she is more perfectly herself than any other purely human person. But doing God’s Will is not passive. We are made in the image and likeness of the Creator and the Savior. Thus, Mary’s surrender – be it done unto me according to Thy Will – results in *activity*, creative, redemptive activity. Always, Mary’s actions in accord with God’s Will are reflections of that Will and activated by it. Yet God choose her and filled her with grace so that she could eternally serve Him, as the Mother of His Son.

The most common name given to Catholic Churches is some form of Notre Dame – Our Lady. You’ll find parish churches and cathedrals named Queen of the Angels, Mother of God, Queen of All Saints, Star of the Sea, Our Lady of Solitude, Our Lady of Victory, Visitation, Mother of Sorrows, and a hundred other names and references to Mary.

Catholics do this because each church is a tabernacle of the New Covenant, a place where the Incarnation continues through the priest when he, acting as Jesus commanded the Apostles, incarnates Him in the bread and wine. By the Divine Will, Mary’s perfect yes brought that Will into this world, uniting Heaven and Earth, making each of us members of a Royal Priesthood, made worthy to enter the Holy of Holies where Christ is present on His altar, the Lamb of God. We then become, each of us, that Tabernacle when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

Christmas means all these things. We honor God by honoring Mary, Queen and Holy of Holies by His Will. The Child in her womb, the Babe in the manger, the Lamb of God on the Cross, the risen Lord, the Pantocrator – Mary was there for all of that. Her work of bringing Jesus into the world, in the image of God and reflecting and embodying His Will, continues eternally.

She always reflects His glory, always points to the Son, always does His Will. We, honoring her, always follow her lead and give worship and glory only to Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.

Have a Happy, Holy, and Blessed Christmas Season! (which runs from sundown today through the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Party hard till then!)

Book Review: Don’t Give Money to People Who Hate You

Brian Niemeier‘s 90-page book Don’t Give Money to People Who Hate You, is a kick in the pants to those of us who are still drifting along sedated by nostalgia, still paying for the privilege of a front-row seat to the mutilation and ultimate destruction of our own culture, willfully oblivious to the contempt and hatred of those who have appointed themselves our betters. I needed that kick – while I have long since revoked access to my wallet to Hollywood movies, and have never been much for games and comics, I still sometimes click on mainstream news articles and shop with major corporations. As explained below, these are now as much of the problem as the direct culture war waged in films and print. Many major corporations do all in their power to prove their hatred for me and mine and everything we believe and love. Don’t give them your money. Don’t give them your clicks.

So if you still are paying to consume blockbusters, comic book movies, video games, mainstream books and comics, or patronizing sports teams, retail outlets and ‘news’ media that have gone way, way out of their way to let you and the entire world know they hate you and everything you love – read this book. Now.

DGMTPWHY provides a quick tour through the who, when, where, what, and why of our current state of all but unwatchable, unreadable and unplayable ‘entertainment. The creators of mainstream entertainment have gotten converged, and, despite the hit to their corporate wallets, are now purveyors of nihilist propaganda masquerading as movies, comics, books, and games.

They must subvert and destroy what we, the sheep they despise, love. Manly men trying to be honorable, heroic and manly, and feminine women trying to be honorable, heroic and feminine, are right out – they are tools of the patriarchy, the cultural hegemony of oppression under which we sheep labor, and from which our purple-haired, nose ringed genderfluid betters are going to save us – or make sure we die from their trying. A character as complex as Rick in Casa Blanca, or even Luke in Star Wars, is to be simplified for the purposes of the cause. If you are so unwoke as to *like* such complex characters, well, our betters plan to fix that – by stories with no heroes and no villains, which leaves them with no plots or even logic. So things blow up.

And, of course, this all boils down to hatred of God. I’ve long held that all heresies are denials of the Incarnation. The basic ingredients of the dogma are a transcendent yet merciful God, creator of the Universe, Who, in an unfathomable act of humility and love, becomes one of us, suffers for us, and saves us. He defeats evil, and gives us hope. The purveyors of modern culture reject and mock each of these ingredients one by one, specifically. There is no God, nor any evil to defeat, nor good to defend. There can be no heroes, and no villains. Nothing is created from love, which is a lie. Humility is stupid; suffering is pointless. Only power matters, if anything matters.

There is no hope.

Modernism, of which this whole cultural war is the current manifestation, battles to defeat the good, the true, and the beautiful, even in such seemingly trivial forms as comic books and movies. But popular entertainment, from Homer to Shakespeare to Star Wars, is the way a culture is defined, nourished, and passed along. Just because it’s Batman and Thor getting the Social Justice treatment instead of (for the moment) Bach and Dante, doesn’t make it less dangerous Indeed, a lot more people have their morality formed by Superman and Harry Potter than by Milton and Flannery O’Conner. In a sane, healthy society, the popular culture and the highest high culture are formed by, share and communicate the same moral messages. For a century or more, that has not been the case in the West: our high culture is a cesspool of nihilism, while, up until the last 50 years, popular culture was still dominated by the theme of good versus evil – and the now novel idea that it’s better if good wins.

Brian published this work in April, before the rioting and the Antifa/Black Lives Matters psyops took over the ‘news’, and wrote it, I imagine, before the COVID hysteria and lockup. These are of a piece: the same people who show their hatred of you in movies and books have broadened their channels, and now show their murderous intent through the flexes and humiliation rituals of the lockup and masks and ‘social distancing’ (a phrase no one had heard of 4 months ago that is now treated like the Wisdom of the Ages), and by their apologetics, encouragement, and approval of those who would literally burn our country down. They destroy statues as phase one of an effort to memory hole anything that doesn’t conform to their contempt. I exaggerate not one iota when I say: Antifa and BLM dream of getting to kill you and your family. They are driven by the Marxist fantasy that bad people on the Wrong Side of History are all that stand in the way of paradise on earth. That paradise is the glorious End that justifies any means, including the slaughter of all who, in the minds of the Marxists, oppose it. Stalin and Mao, with their purges and Great Leap Forward, are not seen as history’s greatest criminals, but as role models. You and I are those bad people. They want us dead.

Don’t believe me? Read what they have to say for themselves.

The companies that even today are bending the knee and falling all over themselves in their rush to issue statements, not in condemnation of wanton property destruction and threatened and real physical harm up to and including murder, but rather in *support* of the rioters and vandals. The very idea that there are significant numbers of ‘peaceful protesters’ was always ludicrous: useful idiots and bored, antsy teenager of all ages, sure. Large numbers of people who take to the streets for weeks on end because a fellous thug who once robbed a pregnant woman at gunpoint while she pleaded for her life got himself killed by an out of control cop who is in jail awaiting trial?

That’s not what’s happening.

Back to the book. I know what Brian is talking about. Star Wars came out the summer after my freshman year in college. My girlfriend at the time kept raving about this movie we had to go see, even though she’d seen it several times already. I, a callous sophisticate as only a 19 year old can be, remained cool.

Then we hit the theater – with a line around the block. From the first scene, I was hooked. Awesome, and so much fun! So, of course, went back several times, and saw the sequels also several times each in the theaters, and got the videos as soon as they came out, and did my best to wear them out. So, yea – I get it.

Even after the road kill that was the prequels, with dread in my heart, I went to see the Force Awakens – and was mildly entertained. BUT – never felt the slightest urge to see it again, or get the DVD. Upon reflection, the movie got worse and worse: the pageantry and special effects – and the still-not-bone-dry well of good will earned by the original trilogy – distracted me from the cardboard characters, the utter lack of character development, the stupid, derivative plot, the relentlessly nonsensical motivations (or lack thereof) driving what little story they had. Rather than Luke’s textbook hero’s journey, we get a total Mary Sue; rather than family, honor, and friendship invigorating the characters, we had – what, exactly?

I’ve seen none of the subsequent movies. Since Brian first mentioned his rule – never give money to people who hate you – a few years ago, my inchoate disgust got a name and a focus, and rather than just avoiding movies because I didn’t want to feel used, I began avoiding them on principle – the principle of this book.

Now, we need to expand the field in which this dictum operates to include all corporations and businesses that have kowtowed to BLM and Antifa: No, Corporate America, you do not need to prove you aren’t racist by anything beside treating all your customers with respect, providing good value for the dollar, and hiring and promoting people based solely on how well they do those first two things. Pandering to bullies earns my contempt, not my dollars; actively supporting people who want me and mine dead gets me fired up to look for and promote alternatives to anything you might offer.

Explaining the Eucharist: Adventures in RCIA

I was assigned to give 15 minutes (!) on the theology and history of the Eucharist to our RCIA class last night. Of course, the first thing one has to say: impossible task, all I can give it the briefest outline of an introduction to the topic. I wish I would have thought to say…

Well, that is the topic of this post: what can one say about the Eucharist in about 15 minutes? I’m taking what I did say, cleaning it up and adding a few points I wish I’d thought to say.

Image result for monstrance

We try to understand the Eucharist, the True Presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, with our minds of course, but even more with our hearts. The Church does and always has encouraged questions and thought, but at the same time reminds us that the things of God are beyond the intellectual grasp of us mere humans and can only be known imperfectly in this life. The Eucharist is first among these mysteries, as it is the continued presence of the Incarnate Lord among us, the working out and fulfillment of our salvation as members of the Body of Christ.

When Peter preached on Pentecost, 3,000 people were converted and baptised. Why? What did those hearing Peter understand that made them ready to accept Jesus? Two stories central to Judaism help explain this, and how these early Christians understood the Eucharist.

The first is the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. When God tells Abraham to make a burnt offering of his son Isaac, he obeys without question. In the last chapter, he had driven his concubine Hagar and their son Ishmael out, giving them only a waterskin and a little bread. Even though God had assured him that He would care for them and make a nation out of Ishmael, Abraham had treated them poorly: driving a woman and her small son into the wilderness would normally be a death sentence. So Abraham has no standing to object to God asking for his other son.

When Isaac says “Father! Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham answers that God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering. When God stops Abraham and supplies a ram, He is sparing and ransoming not just Isaac but all of Israel, all the children that would come through Isaac. He was providing the sacrifice that allowed Israel to exist.

Thew second story, the greatest story in Israel, is God saving His people from Egypt. The last plague sent by God to force Pharaoh to set the Israelites free is striking down the first born of every household in Egypt. He gives instructions to Moses: have the people get ready to leave. Have them take a yearling lamb, unblemished, and kill and eat it. Have them take some of its blood and splash it on the lintels of their door as a sign to my angel to pass over that household.

Thus, God strengthened His people for their journey out of slavery and into freedom with the flesh of a lamb, and by its blood marked them out and spared them from death.

In these two stories, God supplies the victim which is sacrificed in the place of Isaac for the sins of Abraham, thus purchasing the lives of all his descendents. In Egypt, the land of slavery, He tells them to eat an unblemished lamb and to mark themselves as His with its blood. The flesh of the lamb strengthens them for their journey to freedom, its blood saves them from death.

When John the Baptist sees Jesus down by the Jordan River, he proclaims: “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold him Who takes away the sins of the world!” The Jews hearing this would have thought: the Lamb of God? The sacrifice supplied by God to save us? The lamb whose blood spares us from death? Whose flesh strengthens us for our journey to freedom?

Then, in John 6, Jesus expounds further: unless you eat My Flesh and drink My Blood, you shall have no life within you. For my Flesh is real food, and My Blood is real drink. These are outrageous claims, and the people who heard it were outraged, and many left. Jesus then asks his disciples if they, too, wish to leave, Peter answers not with any understanding of what he’s just heard, and not with questions or requests for clarification. He’d just heard Jesus emphatically double down in the face of outrage. Instead, he says simply: Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.

At the Last Supper, after the traditional Passover meal where Jesus and the Apostles remembered how God rescued His people from Egypt, at which they had prepared and eaten the lamb just as Moses had instructed Israel in the land of slavery, Jesus breaks the bread and says: this is My Body. He takes the wine and says: this is the cup of My Blood in a new and everlasting covenant. Do this in memory of Me.

Remember, as John says at the beginning of his Gospel, Jesus is the Word through Whom all things were made. When He says ‘let there be light,’ light appears; when he commands the earth to be full of plants and animals and the sea to be full of fish, they are. His Word causes things to be what they are. When He says: this is My Body, that is what it is.

After this, Jesus leaves the Passover meal and heads out to be sacrificed for us, handing over His Body to death and spilling His Blood that we might live. God has indeed provided the Sacrifice. He has indeed supplied the food for our journey into his life and freedom.

From the moment Peter first preached at Pentecost, this has been the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist. Those 3,000 Jews who converted on the spot would have understood this, as I’m sure Peter and the Apostles would have pointed it out to any who did not immediately grasp it. But as important as the intellectual understanding is, much more is the touching of hearts: all the pieces of all the stories those people had heard all their lives, all the yearnings and prayers for a savior, all their longing for Emmanuel, God With Us – all the pieces fell into place, and they all knew that Jesus is Lord, that He is with us always, and gave us Himself most intimately for our nourishment and salvation.

Thus, we find in Acts and the letters of Paul already expressed a devotion to the Eucharist. The True Presence is attested to by all the Church fathers. John’s and Paul’s descipe Ignatius of Antioch wrote about it in his letters around 100 A.D. Irenaeus of Lyon testified to it in the 2nd century. The Church has maintained from the beginning that God so loves the world that he continues to send His Son to us, His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine.

I blathered on a little more, but this is the gist of what I wished I had said, built on what I did say, which was not this clear or tidy, and left out a few things.

Beauty, Intellect, Beethoven & Scripture

A Happy, Holy & Blessed Christmas to all, and to all a happy and prosperous New Year!

Consider the 2nd movembt of Beethoven’s 7th symphony:

The story goes that when Beethoven debuted this work, the audience stopped the concert after this movement, and insisted it be repeated. Classical music audiences were a little more outgoing back in the day, it seems.

The audience’s reaction is perfectly understandable: pre-recorded music, one might die before getting a chance to hear this sublime and beautiful piece again, so why not now? A work this beautiful is life-changing. It may sound like just another overly-familiar classical work to jaded ears, but in context it is strikingly unusual: listen to the whole 7th, which is one of civilizations greatest works of art in any medium, and the 2nd movement still stands out.

But this Allegretto isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, it’s also deeply satisfying intellectually. The more you listen and think about it, the better it gets. Beethoven sets himself a series of puzzles or challenges, and ‘solves’ each one in inventive and unusual ways, yet, somehow, after you’ve heard it, all the little departures from expectations (or beauty where you didn’t know what to expect) sound utterly inevitable. And it fits perfectly within the symphony as a whole – as hard as it is to believe, it was only with this 7th symphony that Beethoven finally won over all the critics, many of whom had disliked his 3rd and nit-picked his 5th. The 7th is just perfect, and that 2nd movement slayed people.

Finally, as is true of all great art, the 7th, especially the 2nd movement, is bottomless: you can go as deep as you want, and there’s always more.

This confluence of soul stirring beauty and soul-stirring intellectual gratification is , of course, what makes great art great in the first place. Only in these dark modern times would anyone think to divorce emotional force from intellectual beauty.

These (mundane & traditional) thoughts were occasioned by the Christmas Gospel reading:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and family of David,
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

LK 2:1-14

This Gospel story from Luke is beautiful in a specific and somewhat odd way. Consider these 2 sentences from the middle of the selection:

While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.

This is the climax of the story: Mary gives birth to the son foretold by the prophets and announced to her by an angel of God, yet Luke gives it a sentence, as if it were any other birth of any man. The Lord and Creator of the the Universe, as described in the opening of John’s Gospel, or even as, in a similarly subtle and understated way, in Mary’s encounter with her cousin Elizabeth in the passage immediately preceding this one, is wrapped in the cloth of the poor and laid in a feeding trough for animals, with the casual, after the fact explanation: there was no room in the inn.

So, two matter-of-fact sentences that lay out the entirety of the Christian claim, paradox and stumbling block: That God became Man in this very specific time and place, utterly weak and humbled, and was wrapped and bound and laid among the food for animals by his own mother’s hands. He wasn’t even able to find a place at what was no doubt the very humble inn.

The artwork inspired by these two lines could fill any number of museums; a concert of the music written to commemorate them would go on for months; and the books holding the writings about them would fill any number libraries. And the flood shows no signs of abating.

Then, a great multitude of angels sing a song of infinite glory – to a bunch of sheep, and the shepherds watching over them.

The story of Christ’s birth is as beautiful as it is simple, and satisfies the soul. But it is also intellectually satisfying, not in the sense of providing a tidy summation, but in the sense of offering infinite depths to explore.

Glory to God in the highest!

Thinking About Free Will

The formal class part of RCIA has begun for this year. I’m the go-to guy for history & theology (how profoundly frightening this is has so far escaped our beloved DRE). All this means is that if anyone wants, or, more likely, I decide on my own that anyone needs, a more formal definition or some historical context, I’m the guy who provides it. Such as I might. This leads to me thinking about how to talk about various dogmas in a way that isn’t too hoity-toity yet gets the essential nature and purpose across.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts on Free Will. Where angels fear to tread, and all that.

While we were created in the image of God, God is still very different from us. God’s freedom is part of his eternal Being – it is not so much something He does, bit rather is a fundamental part of Who He is. Nothing outside constrains God; He freely acts in accordance with His infinite goodness and love. Every action of God is utterly free, and completely an expression of divine goodness and love.

While God is not compelled or constrained by external thing, it might be said that He just can’t contain Himself – His loving kindness boils over in His creations. All of creation is a free expression of God’s nature as a loving Father and Creator.

Creation is thus an expression of God’s life and profound joy. It is not like a clock, built once, wound up, and then left to play itself out. Rather, God loves the world into existence at every moment. In Him we live, and move, and have our being. Each of us is a unique expression of His boundless joy.

Out of this joy, God gave man and the angels freedom. This created freedom is a reflection of God’s nature, perhaps the key aspect of our being made in His image. It is a gift from God, loved into being by God, and as an aspect of God, as sacred as God Himself. As an essential aspect of this gift, God will not overrule us.

But to be free in our own little way, our acts must participate in God’s freedom. God’s freedom is always expressed through overflowing love and goodness. Thus, we can only be free when we, too, act in harmony with that divine love and goodness. Acting against God is choosing slavery; once enslaved, we have lost our freedom. Yet God, in His mercy, will always, as long as we live in this changeable world, hold out to us the opportunity to repent, to turn from the slavery of our sins back to the freedom of His will.

An example: A man on the edge of a giant cliff is free to step off the cliff. If he does so, he has lost all freedom: he is subject to the laws of physics, and will fall to his death, shattered on the rocks below. God did not give the man freedom so that he could jump off a cliff. Rather, He gave us freedom so that we, too, could share in His joy as joyful, loving creators in our own little way. Yet that freedom means that we just might choose to step off the cliff.

The moral law, another creation of God, is, in effect, a warning: don’t step off the cliff! As long as we work to avoid sin and repent of the sins we have committed, we have the freedom to act in accordance with God’s loving Will. We stay away from the cliff. Reject the law of God, and we at best court disaster. Without God’s loving guidance as expressed in His law, we will, sooner or later, fall off the cliff of our own free will!

That we are free is a gift and a miracle. The saints, who have surrendered their wills to God’s Will, who have willingly died to themselves, paradoxically enjoy complete freedom. It is when we humbly recognize that we don’t really know what’s good for us and don’t always want what’s best for us that God can show us the Way to complete, joyful freedom.

So, do you think this would be helpful to someone investigating the Catholic Faith?

On Followers and Humility

Further thoughts on this post, wherein the observation of Henry VIII (as imagined by Robert Bolt in A Man for All Seasons) that “…there’s a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves” is discussed.

We modern Americans think any decision made by anyone else on our behalf is at least potentially oppressive, and, more important, has no real hold over us. In its terminal form, even the ‘decisions’ of nature are felt to be subject to review. Our own will, on the other hand, is sacred. It is meaningless to consider the possibility that we might will something wrong – wrong how? According to whom?

Image result for herds
Each of these sheep, despite having its consciousness determined by their class within an oppressive hegemony, has nonetheless made the sacred choice to get its ear tagged, and where appropriate, a bell placed around its neck and a splash of green die applied to its back, and has freely chosen to go wherever it is that everybody else is going. Prove me wrong.

Yet we think feel this is true while surrounded by a mass that follows this week’s herd consensus much more rigorously and with more anxiety than any slave ever worked under the lash. The slave, at least, might dream of freedom, or at least getting a break. Not so the modern American, not so! The very idea that they might differ from the herd and thus be cast into the outer darkness with The Bad People causes such distress we see weeping; anxiety leads them to not even notice how the views they are required to parrot get changed over time, without so much as an acknowledgement that they were ever different. Examples abound. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

What’s been slowly dawning on me is this: that the key getting through the Crazy Years is not to spend time arguing, trying to show the error of their ways to that great mass of people who will follow anything that moves (1), but instead coming to grips with herd behavior being the human default position – and not, in and of itself, a bad thing!

That this is true from an evolutionary perspective is obvious: we survive and breed only as members of a tribe. Taking the evidence for the argument (standard practice in evolutionary biology) we conclude that this state of affairs – tribal membership is how we live to breed, even today, for the most part, and always in history up to the last couple centuries – proves tribal behaviors have been selected for and, therefore, are hard-wired into the human brain. Be that as it may, looking at it from a more philosophically profound perspective, Aristotle’s statement that man is a political animal, and that human happiness is therefore found in what might be called our civic relationships, leads to the same conclusion: we, the products of endless generations of successful breeders, really, really want to be part of the team. We often refer to how those on the Left act like infants – they do, but the spin here is that that’s not entirely a bad thing in and of itself. Infants typically only run into problems when the adults around them have failed.

Revisiting a couple points from the previous post: Heads of households have historically had great sway over the lives of the people in the households. We moderns have no way to imagine how that might work in practice other than imagining the (usually) patriarch as Oppressy McOpressorface. Dad got to pick your spouse and pretty much otherwise decide your future for you – that has to be oppression, right? He negotiated with other families to find you a spouse! Where’s the love?

Answer: everywhere. Dad wanted his children to survive, as a condition to them being happy, since happiness in this life is pretty much over once you’re dead. Thus, he eliminated from consideration potential spouses who could not care for you or who would require too much care on your part: for his daughters, he crossed off the impoverished sons of poor or no family; for his sons, daughters who couldn’t come up with an appropriate dowery, since they (and their kids!) would immediately become his responsibility and a drain on his resources. He did all this, of course, to honor his ancestors and to ensure his line would continue. But none of those considerations contradict his main motive: he loved his children. Having a place in a family and a society of families is, he knew, the chief way we have any joy and freedom in this life. It’s why the heads of monasteries and convents were called abbot – daddy – and mother. The only way for monks and nuns to be happy was in a family, even if it were only a vague shadow of the family in which we are children of God.

Today, getting fed, clothed and housed is such a low bar that we can hardly imagine it being much of a concern; lack of food, clothing and a bed to call your own – and a cell phone, HD TV, and high speed internet – is a sure sign something is Very Wrong (and the eternal infants want the great daddy proxy The State to fix it NOW). But back in Jean Valjean’s day – and Dante’s, and Jane Austen’s and Aristotle’s and Gregory the Great’s – making as sure as you could that your baby of marrying age was going to be taken care of was Job 1. No husbands who wouldn’t or couldn’t take care of your daughters; no wives who might bleed your sons dry. Those crusty old patriarchs wanted spouses for their kids who would be there when needed, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, in good times and bad. This mundane, feet on the ground care is the basis of love, attested to by no less an authority than Christ, who threatens to throw those who do not provide this level of care to their spiritual brothers and sisters (let alone their own children!) into the outer darkness. Feelz don’t necessarily enter into it.

The underlying assumption here, if we need to call it that, is that Daddy, having successfully married and reproduced and raised up his children to marrying age, is more wise and experienced in how all that works than his 16 year old daughter or 20 year old son. He correctly believes that he will do a better job finding and choosing a mate for his children than they are likely to do on their own. At any rate, it is his duty to do so. He would of course take his wife’s views into consideration, and even his daughter’s or son’s. Again, he does this because he loves them, and wants them to be happy.

There’s not much historical evidence that children on the whole objected much to this arrangement. Why should they? The results – not just the spouse, but the family and communal nature of the marriage, seen as uniting the destiny of two families, who thus have a huge interest in the marriage’s success – compare very favorably to today’s outcomes.

But that’s not the main point here. I here want to point out how much everyone in this picture is a follower. Not only do the children and wife and anybody else in the household follow the lead of the patriarch, the patriarch himself follows the lead of his father and the men in his life when he leads: even the leaders are essentially followers. Hope and Change are the last thing anyone involved wants: everybody want things to work out according to plan – and it’s an ancient plan.

It gets worse. History and Scripture record many incidents of entire families, tribes and nations converting as the result of their leaders converting. Sometimes, as in the case of the early Spanish missionaries in the New World, villages elders would meet them, and then send them off if they didn’t want their religion, only to later (after the Guadalupana) decide that, yes, the village would convert. There’s no reason to think the other villagers objected – that’s just the way it was done, they are the elders for a reason, they make the call. We read in Acts 16 and 1 Corinthians 1 of entire households being baptized upon the conversion of the leader. Or entire nations, conquered in war, converting en mass because their new leaders said so. Once heard a story about a Viking priest who went to preach in a remote village, and was challenged by the local chieftain. They fought to the death, the priest won, and the village converted.

We humans are followers. That’s why Christ reserved the worst opprobrium for leaders who lead others astray. This would hardly warrant a whole millstone-tied-around-the-neck, cast-into-the-sea level of hellfire and brimstone unless almost all the people, almost all the time, are followers.

In this sense, what is called Original Sin might be called the Curse of the Followers. Once a bad path has been chosen, we followers really can’t do all that much about it on our own. What we need is a new Leader, a Savior, even, to follow down a better path. But once we find Him, we go all in on the following, we become as little children, as sheep who know their Shepherd.

The point here is that not following is not an option. We will follow, the only question is whom or what? Following the right leader is a great good, just as following the wrong leaders is all too literally the road to perdition.

In his beautiful Prayer after Communion, St. Thomas prays: “May it perfect me in charity and patience; in humility and obedience; and in all other virtues.” I am struck by the inclusion of ‘obedience’ in with charity, humility, and patience. Those last three virtues are big among Christians of all denominations; I don’t think anyone but a Catholic would understand obedience as used here, either in the sense Thomas means it or why he would name it as a major grace of the Eucharist. He means it in the sense another St. Thomas – St. Thomas More – lived it. (1)

St. Thomas More died, in his own words, “the King’s good servant, and God’s first.” He, following Aquinas, saw obedience to legitimate authority as a positive virtue, a full realization of humility, patience, and love. Obedience isn’t a grim duty, to be performed under duress or threat, but rather an opportunity to be eagerly embraced to live out charity and humility.

Of course, the virtue of obedience requires prudence and the knowledge of exactly how far the proper authority of a superior goes. More struggled mightily to find a way to obey his king, and only when this proved impossible did he try to retire from public life and keep his mouth shut. He could not consent, yet to the end he tried to honor Henry and do nothing to contradict him. He expressed his love and affection for his king right up to the moment that king had his head chopped off.

Both Aquinas and More thought obedience a virtue to be actively practiced. It was a positive good to promptly obey proper authority, a step on the way to greater holiness. Put another way, these saints strongly supported active, vigorous following.

Put the other way around, thinking you have what it takes to blaze your own trail is hubris bordering on lunacy. You? Me? We don’t know nothin’! The modern phenomenon is the most slavish followers professing how independent they are, different just like everybody else. Everything from getting tats to creating your own brand new gender is imagined by the victim as declarations of unique trail blazing and laudable bravery, when a look around would show everybody doing exactly the same thing. Many seem to believe unironically that only by slavish conformity can one be unique.

The paradox: we who would restore Christendom or even just Western Civilization need to become great leaders by becoming the most humble followers on earth.

  1. Credit must go to my younger daughter, soon off to South Sudan for a year, for much of this. She wrote a very good graduation thesis exploring what the St. Thomas’s – Aquinas and More – meant by obedience.