Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Staying on the Road

Mark Shea quoted C.S. Lewis today:

The use of fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere "understanding." Cruel ages are put on their guard against sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make liberalism the prime bogey.

Well, I was freaking out quite a bit about that pants thing, I agree. But is the above really the case? Yes, we are a society of skimpy outfits. But we are also a society of folks who think every woman must be covered from head to foot. Yet, even then....

I have a friend who lives in Chicago, and likes to dress in all sorts of kicky little fashions. She got hold of a beautiful silk scarf, used it in various ways, and eventually decided (solely for fashion and wind reasons) that she liked wearing it as a head covering. Since she has dark hair, dark eyes, lives in a very diverse neighborhood, and will cheerfully toss back "Aleikum salaam!" to darn near anybody, a lot of her Muslim neighbors assume she's a Muslim when she wears the scarf on her head.

Now, she has gotten the vaunted effect of respectfully being greeted as "sister" by Muslims far and near. But she has also learned that wearing a head covering doesn't protect you from Muslim men's advances; it exposes you to them. Pretty crude come-ons, too. She was shocked, because she felt that if she were Muslim and devout, they should know she wouldn't be interested. But they didn't know that. They live in a society where women are trapped and demeaned so much that they don't know what a woman might think. Hey, worth a try, right?

Now, our society has gone downhill, and sure, there are meatmarkets out there and drunken fratboys and just plain crime. But on the whole, wherever I go in the US or in a Christian country, I can walk around in normal clothes and pretty much never be molested. Certainly people in my neighborhood are not going to come up to me and make advances as crude as my friend advised. If I don't get that respect, people wouldn't be really shocked if I hauled off or called the police. Have you ever heard of a Muslim woman defending her virtue that way? No, and they seem to assume that authority will assume they were inviting the attack, and doing anything will make matters worse. (From what I've seen, anyway. And of course Fatima swung a notorious sword; but I'm not talking about battle here.)

And I have to say that any time the tide of fashion turns to austerity and covering nearly every bit of a woman from sight, the ordinary rights and respect given to women seems to be swept away by that tide.

So how do you tell people to pull their pants up and put on some clothes without allying yourself with the Burqas R Us crowd of any persuasion? Well, I saw some nuns from Egypt tonight on EWTN, and they seemed to be managing it. They wore a habit and a veil -- but the veil was pulled back just far enough to expose a good-sized hank of hair. It seemed to say, "I'm doing this for God, and I'm not doing it for the Koran."
I liked that. They weren't giving up their Catholic heritage, but they weren't letting themselves be dhimmified, either.

So I think that's what was behind my rage -- being treated like a pushmi pullyu by this wonderful society of ours, and not even being able to live an unharassed life among my brothers and sisters of St. Blog's -- too nunny for some, too much of a hussy for others. (Well, actually that part makes me laugh.) I'm not a happy warrior. I reacted exactly the same way during that memorable conversation when I was told both that Catholics were too full of guilt and that Confession made Catholics too free of guilt. (Well, okay, I didn't scream at anybody this time and demand they pick their accusation and stick with it.)

But I really need to get used to this sort of thing. As the good Chesterton says in Orthodoxy:

And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance.
Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man, while negroes considered him distinctly blonde. Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad--in various ways.

The necessary thing is not for the Christian woman to defend herself from charges of being a skank by dressing with ultra-modesty, or from charges of looking sexless by wearing dental floss to the beach. The necessary thing is to stay on the road that is Christ, not falling off either to the right or the left. If Christ's road itself leads us right or left, then that's the way to go.

That doesn't mean that we have no standards. It means we don't take on the standards of people with no rightful authority over us. It means that we don't throw the prudence that God gave us back into His Face.

Chesterton also says:

Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite....

The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it. Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.

This means that those who sincerely feel themselves called to ultra-modesty shouldn't be so much demanding from their sisters as practicing it themselves as much as they can, for the love of God. They should regard it as a strenuous form of devotion and self-mortification, and maybe they shouldn't ask it of their kids until they're old enough to decide for themselves. Similarly, those who feel themselves called to peace shouldn't go telling soldiers that God has nothing to do with war and all those psalms are a typo, though they should do their best to live as peaceful people themselves.

There are a lot of ways to love and serve God. As long as those ways stay obedient to Church teaching, and don't claim to supersede all other ways, I don't see why we shouldn't pursue what suits us. In fact, to do otherwise would be to get in the way of the Holy Spirit. And if anybody says otherwise, some of us are called to fight him to death and some of us are called to love and pray him to death; but either way, the unlawful restriction has to go. (And if some of us were smarter about their own gifts, certain persons like myself would know better than to freak out unhelpfully.)

But restricting yourself is a lawful and laudable gift, just as every other form of doing more than what's required is. It is the lawful gift of ourselves to God and each other that sets us free, and the taking away of others' lawful freedom that makes us sad prisoners.

More Chesterton and Orthodoxy:

And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.

...St. Francis, in praising all good, could be a more shouting optimist than Walt Whitman. St. Jerome, in denouncing all evil, could paint the world blacker than Schopenhauer. Both passions were free because both were kept in their place... By defining its main doctrine, the Church not only kept seemingly inconsistent things side by side, but, what was more, allowed them to break out in a sort of artistic violence otherwise possible only to anarchists. Meekness grew more dramatic than madness.

...All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure. It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot silk is always at right angles, and is in the pattern of the cross.

...Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? THAT is the problem the Church attempted; THAT is the miracle she achieved.

...the balance was often distributed over the whole body of Christendom. Because a man prayed and fasted on the Northern snows, flowers could be flung at his festival in the Southern cities; and because fanatics drank water on the sands of Syria, men could still drink cider in the orchards of England.

...Last and most important, it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair's breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world.

...Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic... The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable... It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic... It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

Assessment of the Week

It's been a weird week, full of ups and downs. I've had good news and met good people. I've had discouraging news and discouraging run-ins with people. I've been happy and felt on the right path, and I've been disappointed in myself. I've gotten lots done and I've totally wasted my time. And then, there were those nights when the heat wasn't working....

The freaky thing was that God seemed to be in a particularly pointed mood, as stuff kept coming up that I'd just read advice about in The Imitation of Christ. Talk about relevant books!

All in all, though, I suppose I feel pretty blessed. Inconveniently blessed, maybe, and weirdly blessed, always. But blessed all the same.

I actually remembered to watch the EWTN show on Clare Asquith and her book Shadowplay, which I now wish I'd taped. Then I actually remembered to watch the Fulton Sheen show, which has been really neat the two or three times I've actually remembered it.

He told the amazing story of Charles de Foucauld, a playboy French viscount who ended up a martyred hermit in the Sahara. He also mentioned that some orders had been founded after his death by those who were touched by a biography written about his life and inspired to live by the Rule he wrote for himself -- living among the desert people in utter poverty, but as Christians and helpers.

Meet the Little Brothers of Jesus, and the Little Sisters of Jesus. Meet the Little Brothers of Jesus Caritas, who live the same way but in Italy.

And it turns out that this Charles de Foucauld... is the same Charles de Foucauld who's getting beatified this Sunday on November 13! Gotta love EWTN!


Today is Armistice Day, of course. We call it Veteran's Day in America now, and it's Remembrance Day in the UK and its sphere.

But originally, of course, this day was better known as Martinmas, the Feast of St. Martin of Tours. St. Martin was a Roman soldier who became a Christian. Legend says that he was riding on some mission when he met up with a shivering beggar along the road. Since he could not follow the Biblical injunction to give one of your cloaks to the man who has none, Martin promptly cut his great red military cloak in two with his sword, and gave one of the halves to the beggar. Later, Christ came to visit Martin -- wearing that half a cloak.

Sober fact records that Martin trained under St. Hilary of Poitiers, founded a monastery, and preached the gospel among the people. After the bishop of Tours died, Martin apparently became one of a long line of bishops who had to be dragged into accepting the job. (Legend says he was told that a woman in Tours was dying, and as soon as he unwarily stepped through the city gates, the ambushing people of Tours acclaimed him and started getting him consecrated.) Known both for charity and for organizing genius, St. Martin of Tours was one of the great forces holding back total chaos in Gaul as the Roman Empire drew back in upon itself. He was one of the most popular saints during the Middle Ages, and the French always attributed Charles Martel's victory against the Muslims at Poitiers to St. Martin's intercession.

Martinmas was also one of the great harvest festivals (and slaughtering time, since the grass was dying). It provided a convenient end to the All Saints'/All Souls' celebrations of those who have gone before us. Also, in the northern parts of England and in Scotland, it was the real beginning of winter cold. Martinmas was also the ending day for a Scottish hired man's summer employment by a farmer; the two hiring fairs were on Whitsunday and Martinmas. Thanks to the change to the Gregorian calendar, however, Martinmas picked up one more function. For those who stubbornly refused to change, Martinmas was a sort of Old Halloween, as Epiphany was Old Christmas.

Anyway, listen to what the ballads say:

"It fell aboot the Martinmas
When nichts are lang and mirk
That the wife's three sons cam hame
And their hats were o the birk."
-- "The Wife of Usher's Well"

"It was in and about the Martinmas time,
When the green leaves were a-falling,
That Sir John Graeme, in the West country,
Fell in love with Barbara Allen."
-- "Barbara Allen"

"It fell upon a Martinmas time,
When the nobles were a' drinking wine,
That Little Mushiegrove to the kirk he did go,
For to see the ladies come in."
-- one of the innumerable versions of "Matty Groves"

"O Martinmas wind, when wilt thou blaw,
And shake the green leaves off the tree!
O gentle Death, when wilt thou come?
For of my life I am wearie!"
-- "Waly, Waly"

"It fell about the Martinmas,
When the wind blew shrill and cauld,
Said Edom o' Gordon to his men,
We maun draw to a hald."
-- "Edom o' Gordon"

"It fell about the Martinmas tyde,
When our Border steeds get corn and hay,
The Captain of Bewcastle bound him to ryde,
And he ’s ower to Tividale to drive a prey."
-- "Jamie Telfer"

"It fell upon the Martinmas time,
When the snow lay on the border
There came a troop of soldiers here
To take up their winter quarters."
--- "Martinmas Time"

"It fell aboot the Martinmas time,
And a fine time it was then O.
That oor gudewife got puddens to mak'
And she boiled them in a pan O."
--- "Get Up and Bar the Door"

"T’was in the merry month of May
When flowers had clad the landscape gay
To Ellon Fair I bent my way
With hopes to find amusement.

"A scrankie chiel to me cam near
And quickly he began to spier
If I wid for the neist half year
Engage to be his servant.

"'I’ll need you as my orra loon
Four poun’ ten I will lay doon
To you, when Martinmas comes roon
To close out your engagement.'"
--- "Ellon Fair"

"Sae I fell tae my wark, an' I pleased richt weel,
A word or a wave and I plied hand and heel;
But my troubles cam" on, for the fences were bad,
An' the midsummer fleas made the cattle rin mad,
And in cauld blasty weather sair drenched wi' the rain,
Whiles wee thochts o' leavin' wad steal o'er my brain;
But with courage I dashed aye the tear fae my e'e
When I thocht o' my shoon an' my five shilling fee.

"An' Martinmas brought me my lang wished-for store,
And proudly I counted it twenty times o'er,
Noo years hae fled by in a joyful train,
But I never experienced sic raptures again.
The sailor just safe through the wild breakers steered,
Proud Waterloo's victor when Blucher appeared,
Ne'er felt as I felt when I placed on the knee
Of a fond-hearted mother my five shilling fee."
-- "The Five Shilling Fee"

Merry Martinmas, everybody!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Flying High....

After a zillion years as a reptile, amphibian, and even lower forms of life, I have somehow become a Flappy Bird in The Truth Laid Bear's ecosystem. Apparently, the work of defending pants is an important and link-worthy one.

Probably I will soon return to reptilian life, but I felt I must document my day in the sun.

St. Bennen's Summer

We in America didn't have Indian summer this year. Indian summer is in September or October. No, this year we've had St. Martin's Summer, which is generally an English thing. (It's also the title of a Rafael Sabatini book.) However, the heat spell seems to have ended last night (two days early for Martinmas), which I guess would make it St. Bennen's Summer.

St. Bennen (or Benignus, as the boring calendar calls him) was St. Patrick's Jimmy Olsen, according to legend. He was the youngest and chirpiest of his disciples, and also the one who insisted on getting shut into a burning house with a druid while both prayed for rain as a trial of their gods' power. (Archaeologists' experiments have shown that houses of the type used by the Irish at the time would burn fiercely, quickly, and chokingly. Staying inside one on fire was a death sentence.) Also, when St. Patrick prayed the prayer known as "The Deer's Cry" (or the Lorica, but there are a ton of other Loricas; it's a genre name), God made Patrick and his group look like a herd of deer to their enemies, while Bennen looked like a fawn following behind them. In sober fact, Bennen eventually succeeded Patrick as bishop of Ireland. But the legend's too neat to ignore.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Moral of the Pants Story

There is one, of course. "Honi soit qui mal y pants."

And forthwith, I award the office of Knight or Lady Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Pants to all who fought in this combox combat for the honor of ladies and their chosen garb. Wear it with pride.