Gender mayhem and the new Babel

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The announcement last weekend that the British Equalities Minister Justine Greening wants to change the law so that people are free to specify their gender on their birth certificate regardless of medical opinion, provoked dismay and outrage among conservative people. Not all liberal people were happy with it either – but for the libertarian gender-benders it was like the dawn of a new age.

Tim Stanley, in the Daily Telegraph, took a critical if sober view of it. He didn’t think it would really fly. I wouldn’t be so sure, given the extent to which the very foundations on which common sense and the politics of the common good have been so badly warped. Stanley acknowledged:

Life is messy and the individual should navigate it with free will. But it’s precisely out of deference to the complexity of the human experience that we cling on to certain principles – principles that reflect not just our ideals but the realities of our nature. Biology is one of those realities, and it helps define us as men and women. Because biology is so vital, if you try to rewrite the principles to please one tiny minority, you impact upon the lives of absolutely everybody.

He adds, The Tories are meddling in affairs that are well beyond their intellectual grasp or the country’s willingness or capacity to accept change. Greening is asking the British public not only to accept a radical notion that most will find exotic but to rewrite the daily narrative of their own lives – and behave as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. It is, I suspect, too big an ask.

In The Times (London), Clare Foges struck a warning note suggesting that it would be unwise to be complacent. Storing up trouble for our children now and in future generations was what was on her mind.

Many of the adults among us may dismiss this with an inward roll of the eyes, too polite or too wearied by political correctness to demur. But children are increasingly presented with these complex and confusing ideas as unarguable fact. They are being led to believe, on social media and in schools, that gender is simply a lifestyle choice.
On Facebook, users can choose from a buffet of 71 gender options: polygender to two-spirit person. Last year the children’s commissioner sent a form to schoolchildren asking them to pick one of 25 genders that they identified with (withdrawn once the press started to take an interest). Girlguiding has said that boys as young as five who identify as girls can join the Rainbows or Brownies. Scores of schools have abolished “boys” and “girls” from their dress code. One of the country’s leading private schools, St Paul’s Girls’, now considers requests from students to be known either as gender-neutral or as boys. Pupils aged 11 to 15 “can have discussions at any time to explore their gender identity”. No doubt where St Paul’s leads many other schools will follow.

How did this happen, we might ask ourselves? What wrong turning led us to this Chaos? Losing our grip on the Cosmic reality that is God, denying the divine, must surely be somewhere near the heart of it.

Romano Guardini, puzzling over the paradox of an omnipotent God allowing himself to be ignored by his creatures, asks us rhetorically if man can actually turn his back on God? How come it is possible  – if God is really the all-powerful One standing at the beginning and end of time, in history and in eternity, in us and above us in heart and heaven, – that he can be denied, blasphemed, even—incomprehensible mystery—overlooked and forgotten?

Frightening as the prospect is, he confirms:

It is possible—this and more. For it is also possible for God, the one Reality, to exist, and for man, his own creature to declare: God is dead! Man can behave as if God did not exist. He can act, judge, proceed as if nothing existed but himself, man, and the animal, and the tree and the earth. It is possible for man (who has a vital soul through which he exists as man, through which he is joyful or sorrowful) to insist that he is soulless. All this is possible because seeing and understanding, serious contemplation and acceptance of reality are vital processes, hence dependent on man’s will and profoundest disposition. Thus also his capacity for negation is illimitable.

And the consequences are what we have now got. Our capacity for negation is in overdrive.

Roger Scruton put his finger on it in his new book, On Human Nature, when he says:

Take away religion, take away philosophy, take away the higher aims of art, and you deprive ordinary people of the ways in which they can represent their apartness. Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead. Biological reductionism nurtures this “living down,” which is why people so readily fall for it. It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic. It abolishes our kind——and with it our kindness.

And it is precisely the milk of human kindness which Foges tells us we should be relying on in our efforts to deal with our differences and our diversity. She wants our guiding instinct in these matters to be kindness and warns that in seeking to support the tiny minority of children who feel trapped in the wrong body we run the risk of creating a world of confusion and anxiety for the rest.

But ultimately where does kindness come from? Even in a civilization which acknowledges the existence of God there is a struggle to maintain it against our inherent tendency to selfishness. But in any world we know of – contemporary or historical –  where the existence of God is denied our record is horrific. Individuals who have lost their faith in God can be sustained in their humanity by the mores ingrained in them by a believing society, but when that society itself rejects God, and surrenders itself to the values of self-centred and utterly narcissistic individualism, then we all re-enter the tower of Babel. That is what is now threatening us.

Guardini contemplates this reality when he writes, in his reflection on the last chapters of the Revelation of St. John, that:

Unconverted man lives in the visible world judging all that is or may be by tradition’s experience and by the rules of logic. But when he encounters Christ, he must either accept him and his revolutionary approach to truth or lose him. If he attempts to judge also the Lord by the standards of common experience, he will soon notice that he is dealing with something outside experience. He will have to discard the norms of the past, and take Christ as his new point of departure. When he no longer attempts to subject Christ to immediate reason and experience, he will recognize him as the supreme measure of all possible reality.

A big part of modern man’s ‘problem’ with God is surely rooted in his refusal to accept God as God and not as something in his own image. Doing this is no risk to his innate pride and self-centredness. But God is not made in our image. We are made in his image, and made by him. Ignoring that spells big trouble. Guardini continues:

The intellect jealous for its own sovereignty rejects such recognition, which would put an end to its world-anchored self-glorification, and surrender it into the hands of the God of Revelation. This is the ‘risk’ any would-be Christian must take. If he takes it, a profound revolution begins…. And to the degree that the searching individual experiences such spiritual revolution, he gains an amplitude, a superiority, a synthesizing power of reason that no natural insight can match.

Those of us now facing this new Babel, this incomprehensible confusion in our society and in the hearts and minds of so many, have a difficult choice to make. We are being faced with a world-view which has attempted to compromise with the substance of our nature and identity because it has abandoned one of the defining truths about our existence – we are the creatures of the Living God. If there is to be any hope of rescue from this state, Guardini, back in the 1930s, told us what must be done:

The term ‘Christian culture’ must be purged of all that is questionable in it. The gulf between Revelation and the world must reopen. Perhaps a new period of persecution and outlawry must come to shake Christians back to a living consciousness of the values for which they stand.

Mankind, once again, has a great adventure before it.

 

The choice is ours

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“The whole world is in a terrible state o’ chassis”, Captain Boyle, famously proclaimed in Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey’s masterpiece, Juno and the Paycock.

Indeed it is, and we suppose it always will be. The evidence is compelling. It’s a long, long story and it’s not really a terribly productive pursuit to go on analysing the ‘whys’ and the ‘wherefores’ of it all. But what is incumbent on us is to constantly and creatively respond to and deal as best we can with each new symptom of chaos, generally in the form of some crisis, as it arrives on our doorstep – whether personal, local or global. Generally there are plenty to choose from.

Just now we have the Brexit fallout and its related knock-on implications for the future of the troubled states of the European Union. Across the Atlantic there are the multiple storms associated with a very unusual new US administration, and further to our east we have an enigmatic Russian regime which might or might not be playing high stakes cat and mouse games with its nervous neighbours. ‘Plenty of potential for chassis there – accepting Captain Boyle’s Malapropism – to be going on with.

I often wondered what St. Josemaría  Escrivá meant when he wrote “A secret. – An open secret: these world crises are crises of saints”. It’s an intriguing and even strange phrase. But it is only strange if we limit our understanding of what saints are to those popular images we have of them – halos, pious postures and sometimes living hermetic reclusive lives separated from the affairs of the world. These were the saints a good number of us grew up with, and who indeed may have played an important role n helping generations of Christians to model their lives according to the teaching of Christ.

But these saints do not really get to the heart of St. Josemaría’s challenging phrase, which seems to suggest that being a saint offers some hope of a resolution of the world’s problems. Is that credible? Daringly, maybe outrageously for some, he maintains that it is.

The origins of his thinking about this, and its place in his teaching about what being a saint in the middle of the world is all about, is elaborated by the editor of the critical-historical edition of the book in which he first put this statement down on paper, The Way.*

What the phrase essentially underlines is the central idea of Escrivá, that Earth is really only properly understood in the context of Heaven and that if the problems of the earth are to be solved at all they can only be truly solved on that horizon where heaven and earth meet in the hearts of women and men, in the reality of holiness, that is, sanctity, the stuff of saints.

This phrase, and the chapter of the book from which it comes, is an example of his insistence on the correspondence to grace — holiness — of those who have become aware of God’s calling. That calling was a universal one, not one for the special few – the saints of popular piety. It was a call for all women and men because it was, it is, the express will of God that all be saved. The doctrine on holiness, the editor of the edition points out, is not an idea outside time, but is an idea realised in time, and more specifically, it determines the solution to the “world crises”.

This idea permeated all of St. Josemaría’s teaching and preaching. On another occasion, stating it in very practical terms, he reminded people, putting before them a very simple ideal:

“If every country had a group of holy fathers of families, holy doctors, holy architects, holy workers, all the world’s problems would be solved.”’

Nor did he see it as a big numbers game. The same point in The Way is completed with this rider:

God wants a handful of men, “of his own” in each human activity. – And then…pax Christi in regno Christi – the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ.

In 1937, when he was in hiding during the Spanish Civil War, he explained his vision in more detail in a homily:

“A pinch of salt is enough to season a meal for many. To impart new savour to the world, relatively few people will be necessary. But these few, by obeying God’s Will, have to truly be salt that cures and seasons. […] If we carry out our apostolate, then the face of the world will change, and the disorder and wretchedness we see in the world will be replaced with Christian peace and happiness. Then peace will spread throughout the world.”

He always rejected any conception of Christian life as something ‘private’ which absents itself from the “world crises” —- a mistaken sense of ‘interior life’ — and puts, instead, the ‘interior life’ in strict and close connection with ‘human activity’, with the problems of human society.

In this, as in all things, Escrivá’s vision was always united to the popes of his time. He was moved by the vision of Pope Pius XI who used the expression “Pax Christi in regno Christi” which to a great extent summarised his pontificate’s programme laid out in his first encyclical (1922). There Pius recalled that his predecessor, Pius X, in taking as his motto ‘To restore all things in Christ’ was inspired from on High to lay the foundations of that ‘work of peace’ which became the programme and principal task of Benedict XV. These two programmes of Our Predecessors We desire to unite in one — the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Christ by peace in Christ – ‘the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ . With might and main We shall ever strive to bring about this peace, putting Our trust in God, who when He called Us to the Chair of Peter, promised that the divine assistance would never fail Us.” (Urbi arcano 22)

The teaching of Pius XI gave a great impetus in those years to Catholics to take seriously their responsibilities in the public square. Nevertheless, the understanding of the role of lay people in the life of the Church and in society still remained limited and the universal vision of St. Josemaría was not widely appreciated.

As the editor this edition states in his note, St Josemaría goes to the root of the problem, beyond social and political factors and every form of Catholic organisation. He sees peace as the result of men and women of God – saints – present in all human activity: the peace of Christ springing from within human activity.

His theology of peace, so to speak, has to be seen in close connection with a ‘locutio divina’ more than five years earlier, and which remained engraved in his soul for ever. It took place on 7 August 1931. In his personal notes from that time St Josemaría left an account of this intervention of God in his life, written and dated that very day.

Referring to the celebration of Mass that day, he wrote:

The moment of the Consecration arrived; as I raised the Sacred Host, without losing proper recollection, without being distracted — I had just mentally made my offering to the most merciful Love — some words of Scripture came to my mind, with extraordinary force and clarity: et si exultatus fuero a terra, omnia traham ad meipsum’ (And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to myself: John 12:32). And I understood that it would be the men and women of God who would raise the Cross, with the teachings of Christ, above the summit of all human activity. And I saw Our Lord triumphant, drawing all things to Himself.”

In a recent column by Erasmus in the Economist, reflecting on the origins of the European Union in the aftermath of the horrors of two wars, the Catholic inspiration which was central to that movement in the persons of Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gaspari and Konrad Adenauer is noted. These men, some of whom are now being thought of as candidates for canonisation, were types of the saints Escrivá saw as proper to the modern world, responders to its crises in a thoroughly modern way but moved to do so from the deepest resources of lives sustained by grace and sanctity.

The Erasmus column looks at the resurgence of Catholicism in France but sees it as a much weaker player now in the politics of that nation. Nevertheless, its influence is there and perhaps it will only be when, or if, the fullness of Christian virtue begins to flower in the lives of people that the many crises of that nation will be responded to effectively and fruitfully.

Romano Guardini has called for a purer reading of Christ’s role in the world and an end to the reductive reading of him as the greatest and wisest man who ever lived. Again, it is a reading which calls on his followers to be saints, people who as such must read the world and their place in it in a truly radical way, not just followers of another great leader.

Christ does not step into the row of great philosophers with a better philosophy; or of the moralists with a purer morality; or of the religious geniuses to conduct man deeper into the mysteries of life; he came to tell us that our whole existence, with all its philosophy and ethics and religion, its economics, art, and nature, is leading us away from God and into the shoals. He wants to help us swing the rudder back into the divine direction, and to give us the necessary strength to hold that course. Any other appreciation of Christ is worthless. If this is not valid, then every man for himself; let him choose whatever guide seems trustworthy, and possibly Goethe or Plato or Buddha is a better leader than what remains of a Jesus Christ whose central purpose and significance have been plucked from him. Jesus actually is the Rescue-pilot who puts us back on the right course.”

This is a hard saying for the world to accept. It offends our vain-glorious sense of self-sufficiency. But there it is, until it does, these world crises will go on and on in their chaotic way. Some will leave us muddled, like poor Captain Boyle. Others, tragically will once again plunge us into the abyss of human degradation. The choice is ours.

In our struggles with the world’s and our own crises, we may be, as T.S. Eliot said, “only undefeated because we have gone on trying”. But that is not a little. That, in fact, in the eyes of our Creator, is certain victory.

  • The Way (Critical-Historical Edition), P. Rodriguez, Scepter.

Epiphany in Trafalgar Square – beyond ‘Beyond Caravaggio’

An image has been haunting me for months. It was captured – or, I should say, it captured me – one September evening in Trafalgar Square. It evoked a strange sensation of timelessness, as though 2000 years had been transcended in a moment. Somehow, that historic moment of betrayal in a garden in Jerusalem in 33 AD, was present again in that iconic London meeting place in 2016 – and nobody seemed to care too much. Everyone seemed to be looking the other way. An emblem of our age?

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A few days before the scene depicted by Caravaggio, the subject of the painting prophesied the terrible fate which was going to befall his city within a generation. And it did happen. The Temple was razed to the ground and the streets ran with blood.

Perhaps I should have blessed myself and prayed that this city I was now strolling through, this pivot of the modern world, would be spared a similar fate. I didn’t – even though the stones of Palmyra had recently been strewn around the Mesopotamian desert and the women of Aleppo were weeping – and continue to weep – for themselves and for their children. This morning’s paper tells us that the battle for this city is over but  fears are mounting because of reports that Syrian troops or allied Iraqi militiamen were shooting people in apartments and on the streets.

The forces of militant Islam, I thought to myself, have already proven themselves no less interested in inflicting death and destruction on this city. The same great evil which was at the root of that act of betrayal, in that distant garden, is also the source of today’s horrors, is at the heart of every war.

That face, looking across Trafalgar Square, is a penetrating representation of the face of the one Person who really knows what this evil is, that its origin is a creature of enormous power and that the this creature is the irreconcilable enemy of both God and man.

That look of pity, mixed with dismay – “do you betray me with a kiss” – stopped me in my tracks. I sensed – and know – that this look is eternal. Caravaggio’s spellbinding capture of that look reminds us that each one of those figures strolling before the image is the object of the infinite love behind that gaze. A few moments before, some of them were singing and dancing on this very spot in one of those spontaneous pieces of street theatre you stumble across in this very special place.

Behind that look is the knowledge that, as Romano Guardini observed, “there is more than the mere possibility of evil as the price of human freedom; more than the inclination to evil, fruit of individual or collective (inherited) sin. Jesus recognizes a personal power that fundamentally wills evil: evil per se. It is not satisfied by the achievement of positive values through wicked means; does not simply accept the evil along with the good. Here is something or someone who positively defies divinity and attempts to tear the world from God’s hands—even to dethrone God. God being who he is, this is possible only by leading the world into apostasy and self-destruction.”

Given the look in those eyes one could not but long and long that these wayfarers might know more than they seemed to know; that they might only connect the prophetic words of that betrayed God-man with our world and its sometimes terrible predicaments. We know that human kind cannot bear very much reality and we know that singing and dancing are good for the soul – as does he, – but even just a little recognition of the divine inter-connectedness of all things would surely help?

This momentary musing on a London pavement was occasioned by the National Gallery’s use of a protective hoarding at the Gallery to advertise the ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ exhibition currently being held there to great acclaim. This is the first major exhibition in these islands to explore the influence of Caravaggio on the art of his contemporaries and followers.

After the unveiling of Caravaggio’s first public commission in 1600, artists from across Europe flocked to Rome to see his work. Seduced by the pictorial and narrative power of his paintings, many went on to imitate their naturalism and dramatic lighting effects.

Bringing together exceptional works by Caravaggio’s and the Italian, French, Flemish, Dutch, and Spanish artists he inspired, ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ examines the international artistic phenomenon known as Caravaggism.

This exhibition is a collaboration between the National Gallery, London, the National Gallery of Ireland, and the National Galleries of Scotland. The exhibition continues in London until 15 January. It then moves to Dublin where it opens on 11 February and continues until 14 May – after which it then goes to Scotland.

The image on display in the square is a detail from Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, 1602. This painting is on indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin, who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson who gave them this masterpiece as a gift.