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I’ve been thinking today about the things I heard at the Phillip Blond event, and hope to post a response sometime tomorrow. I want to say, though, that while in Washington, I bought a (startlingly expensive paperback) book of Roger Scruton’s personal essays called “Gentle Regrets.” It’s wonderful, really and truly, and a treasure. I read in it an essay called “Stealing From Churches” that I described to my wife tonight as having the effect of turning on a lamp in a dark room, and seeing in their fullness things only perceptible before in outline.
Of course, they don’t steal the works of art, nor do they carry away the bones of the local martyr. Theri thieving is of the spiritual kind. They take the fruit of pious giving, and empty it of religious sense. This theft of other people’s holiness creates more damage than physical violence. For it compels a community to see itself from outside, as an object of anthropological curiosity. Those holy icons that returned the believer’s gaze from a more heavenly region are suddenly demoted to the level of human inventions. Those once silent, God-filled spaces now sound with sacrilegious chatter, and what had been a place or recuperation, the interface between a community and its God, is translated to the realm of aesthetic values, so as to become unique, irreplaceable, and functionless. The tool that guaranteed a community’s lastingness, becomes a useless symbol of the everlasting.
Scruton then relates his role in an actual minor theft from a country church (of crystal cruets), and how it haunted him for years afterward. The real theft, though, was sacramental — his failed marriage to a Catholic woman, which broke him spiritually. He writes of his lesson as a spiritual thief: “Stay away from holiness, was the lesson. Stay away until you are sure it possesses you.”
That’s more or less where the essay picks up at the link above. The profiles Scruton writes of those two very different Catholic believers illustrate what it is like to live one’s life devoted to the Good, and the Good in the person of Jesus Christ. It awed the philosopher, and humbled him. Here is a passage of his dinner with Msgr. Gilbey, who was 84 at the time:
On 1 August 1985, I had dinner with Alfred Gilbey in the Oxford and Cambridge Club (the kitchens in the Travellers’ being closed for the summer holiday). Here is what I wrote in my diary:
How strange the vision of his face as he talks, his eyes fast shut and ringed with folded flesh, his mouth closed and half smiling, his speech barely audible, as though addressed to another, invisible and immaterial presence. His soft slabs of cheek are encased by two symmetrical squares of wrinkles, which seem like deep-cut mouldings around monumental panels of marble. And the voice so rapid and so quiet, glancing off the surface of a thousand subjects, each of which seems to reach out and touch it, only to be left trembling and unfulfilled. He referred to a recent letter of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales to the Pope in Rome, lamenting the decline in their congregations, and calling for a teaching and a practice that would be more ‘relevant’ to the needs of today.‘What an absurd demand — to be relevant! Was Christ relevant? To be relevant means to accept the standard of the world in which you are, and therefore to cease to aspire beyond it. Relevance is not merely an un-Christian but an anti-Christian ambition.’
It is hard to fault that argument; but also difficult to welcome its corollary, which is the vision of a Church enduring forever, but acknowledged only by a few old priests living in spiritual catacombs of their own devising, celebrating the rituals of a Church so truly universal that it has no living members. But that was another of his sayings, that all the best people are dead. Alfred went on to add that Christian charity is now entirely misunderstood, as a kind of collective effort to improve the world.
‘We are not asked to undo the work of creation or to rectify the Fall. The duty of a Christian is not to leave this world a better place. His duty is to leave this world a better man.’
He was dismissive of academic historians, saying that ‘any historian who makes history readable is suspect to those who can’t’. And he had some harsh words to say concerning the modern approach to education, as an ‘education for life’; such cliches awaken the old recusant instinct, which tells him that people might be entirely mistaken, especially in those beliefs that they take to be self-evident. ‘True education,’ he retorted, ‘is not for life, but for death.’ His aphoristic way of talking gains much from his soft, liquid voice, barely audible yet resounding nevertheless in the moral echo-chamber that invisibly surrounds him. He recounted anecdotes of his friend Archbishop David Mathew, who had described Pius XI as a ‘great believer in moderate rewards’, of his Cambridge days and of his long-standing connection with Trinity. He recalled an after-dinner silence in the combination room:A to B: How is your wife?
B (slowly turning, with raised eyebrows): Compared to whom?
This dialogue neatly encapsulates the relation between the sexes, as Alfred conceives it.
He also told with great feeling an apocryphal story concerning the composition of Leonardo’s Last Supper, which, in this version of events, the artist composed over many decades, constantly searching the streets and alley-ways of Milan for the ideal types upon whom to model the twelve apostles, and having begun with the beautiful and innocent face of a young man whose expression seemed to capture all the grace, dignity and tender compassion of Jesus. After years of labour the apostles had all been assembled, representing in their carefully differentiated expressions the fine gradations of hope, resolution, weakness and despair. Only one remained and that was Judas, whose baseness no citizen of Milan seemed to wear on his face, and to whom Leonardo began to despair of giving the absolute lifelikeness that was vital to his conception. At last, in a mean alleyway, a dark figure, engaged in some whispered transaction, caught the painter’s eye. Recognizing in those fear-filled, treacherous glances the lineaments of Judas, Leonardo enticed him to the cenaculo with a gift of silver.
The figure, shifty, suspicious and huddled into himself, is pushed into a corner and told to sit. Looking up at last, and recognizing the painter and the tools of his trade, he says, ‘You have painted me before.’
‘Have I?’ asks the startled painter. ‘When?’
‘Oh, a long time ago.’
‘And for what purpose?’
Judas turns to the nearly completed fresco that is taking shape above them.
‘There I am,’ he says, and points to Christ.
The story is characteristic. Although Alfred’s anecdotes range far and wide, and contain a large streak of satire and even flippancy, there is a single point of reference in all of them, and that is not Catholicism or the Church or Christian civilization or any socially constructed thing, but Christ himself, in all his mystical completeness and simplicity.
This intense personal relation to the Redeemer rescued Monsignor Gilbey from worldliness, made him stand out like a visiting angel wherever he appeared, and in a strange way justified his impeccable turnout and polished manners. The maxim that ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’ is often ridiculed, since it suggests the religion of the nursery, by which Nanny calls God to her aid. But the maxim is ridiculed only by those who have not seen what cleanliness and godliness have in common — namely, the maintenance of the human body as the soul’s earthly vessel and the sensory image of God. Hence it is not only in Protestant countries that the maxim is repeated; nor is it confined to Christian communities. The Muslims will tell you that an-nazaafa min al-imaan — cleanliness is like faith.
Do, do, do, read the whole thing. It’s about faith as a pearl of great price, and the cost of not taking it seriously.