Friday, December 27, 2013

On the Square

On the Square

Christmas greetings, everyone.  I had gone most of the way towards a post, and then lost it in a program crash caused by an increasingly decrepit and unstable system. 

I confess my historical knowledge comes from magazine articles and thumbnail sketches.  However, I was intrigued by Benson’s unfolding, via the mouths of the priests and their elderly friend, of the century 1907-2007.  I wonder what Benson would think of the real version.  A secular author would probably never dare to put forth as putative events, such towering depravities as those of the 20th century, but maybe a priest has a firmer and more realistic grasp of human nature, and Benson would only nod grimly at the spectacle of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the rest.

Benson’s alternative century maps to our own in some astonishing ways – the increasing irrelevance of conservatism at the hands of the welfare state, for example, and the sidelining of the Anglican church after evisceration by liberals.  He misses the Black Swans of the spread of contraception and other forms of willed infertility, and the commodification of universities, which as a countervailing social force, have been neutered by the application of the profit motive, rather than by becoming increasingly poverty-stricken, as Benson proposes.  He gets right the nationalisation of essential industries.  He absolutely nails the psychological explanations of the religious sense.  Electric fires, multi-lane highways, the formation of power blocs, the rise of Asia, all seem curiously familiar.

Were you surprised, though, at Benson’s unhesitating call of a world-wide conspiracy driving these events?  Did you blink at the idea of Freemasonry – old buffers in starched shirts – being the explicit driving force behind it all?  What do you think of Masonry, or has it hardly ever crossed your mind? 

I have a habit of pruning my possessions, papers, books, trinkets, in search of greater simplicity, which, mistakenly, I identify with owning fewer things.  (To my life-long dismay and chagrin, I find that not actually having said possessions in my direct purlieu doesn’t mean that they lose their grip on my imagination, or that I’m any closer to being free of envy, greed, jealousy and covetousness. Were it only that easy.) 

Be that as it may, one of the many books I’ve owned temporarily and flicked on, was a curious little autobiography by a Welshman, who converted, hard, to a Protestant expression of Christianity, following an involvement in Freemasonry.  Though deeply penitent, he felt he was making little progress in the Christian life until he underwent a sort of self-directed exorcism prayer service, during which he made a bonfire of his both his Masonic regalia and his Masonic books.  About the latter, he was especially regretful, since they had cost him dear, and he could have recouped by selling them to a new Mason, but, no, he set his face against it.  He would, he decided, have no part in causing some-one else to stumble.  (This much had a lasting effect on me – since then I’ve had no compunction about burning books, at least, those that I thought weren’t good enough to live: sex ‘n shopping novels, spy novels that try to kid you you’re actually in the know, and those later Heinleins where he went doollally for incest.  Broo-arrgh.  I’m not ashamed I burned them; I’m ashamed they were ever in the house.)  Blessings on the Ex-mason: he felt much relief from his action, though at that time, my condescending response was that demonic influences could not possibly reside in a few odd items of clothing and books, or if they did, that they could not harm a Christian.

I wish, however, I had that ex-Mason’s biography in my hand now: he cited some details of masonic ritual and ideals that would make interesting companion reading to the prologue of Benson’s Lord of the World.  The ex-Mason believed there was deep objective evil in Freemasonry, and in that, he agrees with the Catholic Church.  If the Church’s teachings on this are less well-known today, it’s because Masonry is less strong than it was in 1907. 

It was extraordinarily strong.  Here’s a little list I found of Freemason lodges in the province of Otago alone:

District Grand Lodge, New Zealand South,
District Grand Lodge, Otago & Southland,
Hiram Lodge, No. 46 NZC.
Lodge Celtic, No. 477 SC.
Lodge Ionic, No. 191 NZC.
Lodge Karitane, No. 221 NZC, Waikouaiti.
Lodge Maori, No. 105 NZC, Ravensbourne.
Lodge Morning Star, No. 192.
Lodge Morning Star, No. 192, Lodge of Instruction.
Lodge Oceanic, No. 154 NZC.
Lodge Otago Kilwinning, No. 143 NZC.
Lodge Otago Kilwinning, No. 417 SC.
Lodge Outram, No. 375 NZC, Outram.
Lodge Peninsula Kilwinning, No. 696 SC, Portobello.
Lodge Roslyn, No. 250 NZC.
Lodge Roslyn Morning Star, No. 192 NZC.
Lodge St. Andrew, No. 432 SC.
Lodge St. Clair, No. 246 NZC.
Lodge St. George, No. 1128 EC, Lawrence.
Lodge St. John, No. 84 NZC, Mosgiel.
Lodge St. John Kilwinning, No. 662 SC, North East Valley.
Lodge St. Patrick, No. 468 IC.
Lodge Strath Taieri, No. 199 NZC, Middlemarch.
Lodge Taharangi, No. 235 NZC.
Lodge Taieri, No. 620 SC, Outram. Later moved to Dunedin
and became Lodge Roslyn, No. 250 NZC.
Lodge Waikouaiti, No. 2115 EC then No. 57 NZC.
Port Chalmers Marine Lodge, No. 942 EC.
Research Lodge of Otago, No. 161 NZC.
Service Lodge, No. 237 NZC.
The Dunedin Lodge, No. 931.
The United Lodge of Otago, No. 448 NZC.

At a guess, Otago had not more than 80 000 in population in 1907.  30 lodges, maybe, though some are probably subsets of other lodges.  One lodge for every 1300 Otago men.  One in nearly every small town.  If you plotted them on a map, you would have something very close to a parish system. 

Looked at it this way, the question is not, what did the Church see?  It’s, what were the rest of us missing?

Now I must confess to a personal interest: in 1907, my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my great-uncle were all Freemasons, and around this year my great-grandfather had a terrible industrial accident, fell into his own machinery, and died.  He had a huge Masonic funeral, such a source of pride to the family, that newspaper clippings were preserved carefully, right into the twenty-first century.

Masonry had the hearts and minds of the men in my family.  It was a serious financial and emotional commitment.  We still have  - I still have – souvenirs.  A Masonic order decoration, a couple of Masonic song books, family photographs of the men in their regalia.  There were, I’m told, white kid gloves, which were presented by masons to their wives.  Family members were co-opted to help the men-folk move through the degrees.  There was a grandmastership, in the end. 

There was also damage.  My great-grandfather was cut out of his father’s will.  My grandfather became alienated from his Presbyterian roots.  He took to drinking, and never regained a Christian faith.  After Gallipoli, after the trenches, the Brotherhood of Man didn’t look so good. Masonry bears huge responsibility for giving a whole generation of men an inadequate theology of suffering, and allowing them to take it into the trenches.

The First World War frost-burnt Freemasonry in New Zealand.  The lodges were never the same, afterwards, and now there are fewer than 8 000 masons in the whole of New Zealand.

I don’t have any doubt that the programme of Masonry was and is inimical to that of grace.  However, it’s hard to know whether an explicit political programme could ever have been executed by the “mafia of the mediocre,” as Freemasonry has been called.  But the observable numbers and the structure are such as to make you wonder what the Church knew about her humanistic antitype. Whatever it was, I'm happy to take her wisdom seriously, and give Masonry a wide berth.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Catholic Fiction vs. Paganism


Not to steal Otepoti's December thunder, but I thought I'd add a new perspective to an old discussion, which occurred to me just yesterday and which is actually quite timely.

Do you all remember the Nick Joaquin story The Summer Solstice from February 2011? Back then, I disagreed with Emily's interpretation of Lupeng and Paeng's marriage as unhappy, saying, with my usual naivete, "Not that it's much to worry about. I'm sure that by the next day, all the 'possessed' couples are back to 'normal.'"

I thought that because the Philippine religious culture has been a blend of Catholicism and paganism for a long time, and if it were a marriage, it would be one that had dramatic problems only three days each calendar year. For the most part, a pretty good deal. But is even the tiniest compromise with paganism one which Catholics can afford?

Yesterday I learned about a vicious incident which recently took place in Argentina, when a pro-abortion feminist group tried to attack the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista and Catholic men had to form a phalanx around the church to keep it from being profaned. Frustrated in their original plan, the women turned their spray paint, permanent markers, dirty underwear, and sheer malice onto the men, then gleefully burned an effigy of Pope Francis. Reading the report and watching the disturbing video, I was reminded of the scene in which Paeng tries to look for Lupeng among the devotees of the Tadtarin, who are all women, and barely ends up escaping with his life. But the Catholic men of San Juan didn't have to go among pagan women to find trouble; instead, thousands of both male and female neo-pagans (For how else can we describe those who make an idol out of women's bodies?) in a twisted "feast day" celebration, organised a march to the city's largest cathedral, looking for a fight.

It also didn't escape my notice that the patron saint in Joaquin's story and the patron saint of the cathedral in this real-life are one and the same: St. John the Baptist, whose voice, incidentally, cried out to us from the wilderness once more, in today's Gospel. 

In other words, I now totally agree with Emily that Lupeng and Paeng's marriage is unhappy--and predict that the 362 peaceful days they have out of the year are not enough to keep a lid on the underground volcano they're sitting on. But as I still think that The Summer Solstice is an imaginative depiction of Philippine culture, it has me thinking about the sort of "marriage counseling" that a religious culture would benefit from. It reminded me that we have found rational ways to deal with the irrational before, though I doubt we could recreate certain things today, like Ancient Greece's solution . . .

Another pagan god whose ancient cult can shine some light on the religious aspect of the attack and the defense of the cathedral is the Greek deity Dionysius. He was the ruler of drunkenness and riots, and oddly enough, also of fertility. And it is his cult which is responsible for the death of the musician Orpheus, whether you are reading the telling in which the Thracian women tear him apart because he foreswore Dionysius as a patron and worshiped only the sun god Apollo . . . or the version in which the Ciconian women tear him apart during an orgy because he refused to love another woman after losing Eurydice. The point is that he gets torn apart, which is the mark of Dionysius upon mobs. So the sarcastic trolls who said of the attack on the cathedral, "No big deal. At least the men didn't die!" happened to have been facing north when they checked their smashed moral compasses--for we all intuitively know that blood and destruction are the only things which satisfy rioters. If the cathedral's defenders had not been praying the rosary that day, I don't want to know what would have happened.

The Ancient Greeks didn't have the rosary, but their attempt to control their own riotous, drunken mobs was actually so effective that we still remember it today. I refer to the origin of the theatre. How much safer to give people catharsis through drama (or fiction?), rather than through a real-life "purging" of some resented scapegoat! And there is a Catholic counterpart, of course, in the medieval mystery plays, though we seem to have forgotten them these days. I daresay that we retain some memory of them in the Holy Week liturgy, when the medium is truly the message that the Scapegoat who purged us of our sins also rose from the dead and has invited us to share in His divinity and eternal life. But I'm now getting ahead of the liturgical year . . .

I do have a question, however, which doesn't have to wait for an appropriate season to be asked and seems right up this blog's alley. What is the role of quality Catholic literature in the defense of the Church? What can good Catholic fiction do against the tides of irrationality? I personally hope for the best, but I can't imagine who we will get around literature's current reputation for belonging only to the elite or the highly literary. Even theatre, formerly for and of the masses, has gone the professional route and is no longer so accessible. Only liturgy and the rosary seem to remain.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Lord of the World

It behooves a newish convert to be very very quiet for quite a long time, or at least, that's my excuse for a long silence here.  However, I hope this blog can be brought back to life, despite its recent torpor. 

It's probably not the best time to be asking this, what with the impending nativities, but would anyone like to read Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World with me?  It's available as a free Kindle download, and I'm intrigued by the fact that it's quoted by Pope Francis.

I like a good, thumping piece of doom-mongering: the overturning of the global order, the Fate of the Individual in a World Gone Mad, all that. 1984 had me from the moment the clocks struck thirteen, and I'm devoted to films that feature the downfall of New York, always with the Statue of Liberty being drowned, or frozen, or buried in sand: the toppling of the green lady never fails to make me snicker, and not because I rejoice in the heavy-handed metaphor of the humbling of  the US's power - hardly: we know damn well in these parts on which side our bread is buttered, and China is unlikely to be so merciful, and occasionally, bountiful, an overlord to us as the US has been, these past sixty years.  No; I laugh because it's absurd that we cling to a symbol of stability, even when it presides over (let's say it) an increasingly toxic reality.  Don McLean had it right, so many years ago:

The standing of the Statue is a greater rebuke, now that we are well beyond freedom and dignity and are amusing ourselves to death, than its inevitable crumbling will be, however and whenever that occurs.

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business 

So, with those cheerful thoughts in mind, would anyone like to take a clear-eyed, Eeyore-ish look with me, at a past future?   At the very least, it will make the Christmas rush more palatable, fa-la-la.

If you are all too busy, or if this blog has truly gone dark, I'll just post some comments after this.