“Here is a quick and generally reliable rule to follow. If people have always said it, it is probably true; it is the distilled wisdom of the ages. If people have not always said it, but everybody is saying it now, it is probably a lie; it is the concentrated madness of the moment.” Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture
We often sit and pray after morning Mass in the Fatima grove across the driveway from our parish chapel. A week or so ago, we heard a loud rending of wood and a crash down the street. There had been no sound of saw or axe, just the destruction. Later we looked for the cause of the disturbance. A large weeping willow had split apart and two thirds of it blocked a nearby road. I thought of the old philosophical question from Dr. George Berkeley, an Anglican Bishop and philosopher in the 1600s, about a tree falling in the woods and whether it made a noise if there was no one there to hear it. It does.
I wondered how could the old tree that had survived many thunderstorms, hurricanes, Nor’easters, blizzards, and rogue winds over fifty years, judging by its size, just collapse without notice? That morning in the quiet of early summer blooming, a final tiny weight of water borne up from its roots or perhaps the addition of a single cell in one leaf or a crow building a nest or a squirrel fleeing a shadow delivered the last groaning increment, an unsupportable weight. Or was it long festering inner rot and flaw in its structure that gave way, and the grace and beauty of the tree was destroyed, good only now for cutting up and clearing off the road? I’ll never know what finished it off, but there it was.
Not just trees collapse after decades of weakening.
One of the better articles of dozens I read on the January 6 hearings observed that we are looking futilely for legal or even political solutions to a more fundamental problem, solutions those things cannot possibly provide. We don’t need better laws or policies or politicians; we need better Americans, better citizens. Whether Proud Boys or Antifa thugs or obscene gay pride marchers or arrogant narcissist politicians: progressive ideologues or overtly corrupt self-serving ones, they are merely different aspects of the same disease.
The great majority of Americans get up each morning, attempt to work hard quietly to support themselves and their families, and come home to do the best they can to form the next generation in the best way they know how. But they get little help from educational institutions, politicians, and most media, social or otherwise.
The same article by Kevin Williamson[i] contains a link to a profound T.S. Eliot poem:
“If we give in to the fantasy that we can legislate our way out of this mess or prosecute our way back to republican virtue, we are only ‘dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.’ That is a project that inevitably will end in failure and disappointment. Being good citizens is not easy but maintaining a free society without good citizens is impossible.”
We have replaced objective reality with subjective desires. Rather than the hard work of discerning reality and conforming ourselves to it, we wish to conform reality to ourselves. Rather than seeking to discern the Good, the True and the Beautiful, we rely for guidance from the false, gossamer gods of Tolerance, the Socially Acceptable, and the Culturally Relevant. We look for validation in counting responding emoticons to copy and pasted or ragged and derivative social media posts.
The long slog of learning and reading and thinking and self-reflection is subverted by slogans and clever derision of those with whom we disagree. We don’t listen and debate ideas respectfully, we shout down with bull horns and air horns and screaming obscenities those people who have ideas that question current orthodoxy.
Our hearts and wills are not inclined to virtue, but to our self-driven will. Our minds and discernment are not inclined to knowledge and wisdom, but to factoids and catchphrases to support our causes. Our imagination is not captivated by and seeking out objective beauty in nature or art, but we look for entertainments and distractions.
We hear incessant calls for self-fulfillment, not self-sacrifice for the greater good. We try to fill the hole in our heart with that which cannot possibly heal.
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God .
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust. T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock”
This week the January 6 hearings were deposed by the demise of Roe v Wade, systematically demolished in its pretense by Justice Alito’s Dobbs v Jackson Health brilliantly written decision. After initial euphoria that day with all the excitement of a small avalanche of emails, articles, and posts, the next morning I woke up deflated like post big game blues. The disappointment gave way to a sad resolve, which soon transitioned to a familiar fierce determination.
When the Dobbs v Jackson Health decision was announced, I was elated because I had thought I would not live to see the lies of Roe refuted and overturned so convincingly by the court. Joy was tempered by the realization that much of the good work of our Rhode Island Right To Life founders was excised from the body of our laws by pink shirt abortion zealots and thugs storming the statehouse and its offices with airhorns and screaming slogans intimidating our legislature in 2019. The trigger laws that would have been immediately in effect to protect life in RI were wiped away.
Nearly four generations of Americans, most of our population, grew up and were formed under the auspices of Roe. While certainly not the sole source of their confusion and alienation, Roe contributed significantly to a culture that has absorbed two very dangerous false premises.
The first is that sex is primarily for pleasure and recreation and secondarily is for strengthening commit-ments, and finally way down on the list is for its teleological purpose in nature of perpetuating our species.
The second premise that we passed along to our heirs for fifty years is that once we have determined that conceiving a child is a problem to be solved rather than a commitment, responsibility, and gift to be cherished, the solution is either a contraceptive one or a violent one. We re-created our version of truth and taught our children that the violence of abortion is a “right” to be maintained at all costs, and when faced with an unwelcome pregnancy the cold clinical violence is not just a necessary evil, but a positive good.
We have much work ahead to support and to protect vulnerable mothers and unborn children here once again. We have “miles to go before we sleep.” May God bless the many good hearts and minds who will never give up.
There is an image.
The temple was finally relinquished by the vandals and the despoilers after almost fifty years of hostile occupation. They left the roof burned and collapsed, the walls cracked into ruins, the floor littered with the remnants of charred roof beams, broken pieces of sacred and beautiful art. Dead things and the waste of animals soiled the floor tiles. Something foul was in the corner; there were small bones embedded in the mound. Paper refuse and the remains of barbarian camps.
With resignation and meager hope, I began to sweep the floor with an old broom.
Others drift in then stream in to help clean up the mess. Some erect staging and demo the west wall until only solid blocks remain, then they start in with fresh mortar and new bricks. A straight spruce log is dragged on to the swept floor. Some of us begin to shape it into a new roof beam with a two-handed draw knife and a forged adze.
As night falls, family members come and bring us food: hardy, simple and delicious. Someone starts to play a fiddle, another a guitar. One clear trained woman’s voice begins to sing. Ragged at first, we join in:
As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol’ way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way!
O sisters let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
O sisters let’s go down
Down in the river to pray.
By the third verse we were sounding better, with some complex harmony, by the fifth verse we soared with hundreds of voices. I thought I could hear my father singing. By the end of it there were angels in the chorus.[ii]
The woman who started the singing and her husband, one of the carpenters, said they had to gather their kids who had been engaged in a raucous pick-up baseball game near us, take them home, read a few stories aloud, say prayers together, and put them to bed. Others began to head home to attend to other chores and get some rest. They looked back and waved. ‘We’ll see you in the morning.” I knew they would return.
“Until the sexual revolution, most people understood that customs and laws regarding sex were customs and laws to strengthen or at least to protect the family, and that the family was not something created by the State, but was its own small kingdom, a natural society, founded in the bodily nature of man.” Anthony Esolen, Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity