Tuesday, 7 October 2014
'Reflections on the Spanish Civil War'.
Aidan, who normally chairs our meetings, will be sharing with us his own, largely, unique reflections on a fascinating period in Spanish history.
Venue: The Greencoat Boy Pub, 2 Greencoat Place, Victoria London. SW1P 1PJ.
Date: 29th October.
Please note that if you wish to eat ALL orders must be placed by 19.10. No food will be served after 19.30 as it tends to distract the speaker.
Posted by G at 09:31
Saturday, 12 April 2014
Mr Chairman, Sir, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I usually begin my talks by telling an amusing anecdote because it gives people the feeling that they are going to enjoy my talk – even if they are not. On this occasion, however, I cannot think of one that would bring even a faint smile to my normally granite features; let alone yours, so I won’t try.
However, not having a roguish joke to hand does not equate with being depressed - I am very far from depressed about the parlous state that we are in as a country. We are truly degenerate at present but, if one has to make a descent down a rather dirty pipe, I guess it is better to arrive at somewhere near the bottom than to have to face many more years sliding down it. The past twenty years and have been so infuriating and frustrating, when the mammoth edifice of a degenerate society was being painstakingly constructed, largely from left/liberal academic opinion, and pious cant. The predictably crippled hens are now coming in to roost; although what is wrong with them is heavily ‘spun’ as a reason to recruit yet more ideologically blinkered bureaucrats to sort out the problems they have themselves caused.
I make no apology for making reference several times to what GK Chesterton said about it nearly a hundred years ago because he was in at the start of this particular rot and its development has been continuous, and predicted by him, from then. In 1921 he wrote a piece about the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, which had given rise ten years earlier to the Mental Incapacity Act which the govt had passed in 1914 under which ‘panels of experts’ would decide which citizens should be allowed to have children; in his words “to incarcerate as madmen those whom no doctor would consent to call mad. It is enough if some doctor or other may happen to call them weak-minded”. It actually became law in some of the States of America, where people had to present themselves before a panel for permission to marry and, if they were found wanting – not mad, you understand, just ‘wanting’, they could be refused that permission and, unless they consented to be sterilised, they were imprisoned.
Chesterton wrote, “I seek to describe a quite extraordinary atmosphere in which such things have become possible. I call that atmosphere anarchy and insist that it is anarchy at the centre where there should be authority. Government has become ungovernable; that is, it cannot leave off governing. Law has become lawless that it cannot see where law should leave off. The chief feature of the time is the meekness of the mob and the madness of government’.
Now that is an amazingly accurate description of government in our time. Things’ have become possible’ that no-one predicted and no-one asked for. How many things we can think of that come into this category of the madness of government. There is scarcely any wild and immoral legislation that has been passed in the last thirty years that came in response to public demand. Nobody asked for divorce to be made easier; nor for no-fault divorce; nobody wanted children subjected to dirty talk in the classroom; there were no calls for abortion and contraception to be given to under-age girls without their parents’ knowledge and consent. They did not demand that co-habitation should be subsidized by welfare. Nor that respectable parents should not allowed to bring up their children as they see fit – and yet still be used as a jury to pass judgement on the subtleties of guilt or innocence in a court of law.
How did it come about that those who work are obliged to finance those who choose not to work. And the latest, the so-called ‘same-sex marriages’ for those who cannot fulfil the most basic requirements of ‘equality’ in the normal sense of a marriage.
It is no more the business of govt to re-write what marriage is than it is their business to change the Ten Commandments in order to bring them in line with the modern thinking of a handful top people. Again, as before the first WW, when the ruling class gave only perfunctory consideration of who would enforce the law on mental incapacity and on what principle, they just assumed the passivity and acquiescence of the people – as if they had somehow fallen into the habit of thinking of themselves as despots and the people as slaves. In the event, of course, the Great War intervened only months after the Mental Incapacity Act was passed and, when it was over, the Act was gone – never to be referred to again. Britain found itself at war with the home of Superman and nine-tenths of the professors and philosophers who had done so much to advance the ideas of the racially superior. Overnight, even the name of a German became anathema to the general public as they realised where this ‘scientific approach to life’ had led the Prussians.
But after the war against the very people whose ideas they had craved and then rejected, the old preoccupation with the ‘wrong’ people having children returned – but in another form. This time, it was birth controllers who had in their sights, again, the families of the poor. Chesterton confessed himself to be astounded that the intellectual elite was prepared so quickly to return to a scientific approach to life, in view of where it had lead in the previous decade but he nonetheless took out his old notes and articles and entered the fray again. This time the birth controllers were equally mad as the largely male eugenicists had been; but much more unpleasant, and almost all female. They didn’t like families at all – and didn’t want anyone, not even the clever, having children or making families. It is quite clear from their writings that, unlike the eugenicists, they didn’t want the intelligent like themselves to have large families; their main preoccupation was that they did not want to be out-bred by inferior people.
They are with us today and it’s worth noting that there are, in addition, three huge delusions espoused and promoted by what one might call ‘the governing class’, and none of them has any democratic legitimacy and none reflect the beliefs of ordinary people. The first is multi-culturalism and the belief that you can more in millions of strangers to a culture and they will assimilate and be accepted. The second is a belief that we will be better governed, and happier if we are not governed by our own people, but by the EU. The third is ‘global warming’, which is, as far as I can see, only believed by people who look and dress like lefties!
All these policies have been ‘top down’, as they say – which is why they are never changed when they plainly don’t work but, on the contrary, produce insuperable problems with which we all have to live. . They must be intended by those – somewhere – who govern us and they are not telling us why; even though they must be put in place and then defended, by the well meaning minions whom GK referred to as ‘gigantic dupes’.
There is an added dimension to this destruction of the social and moral fabric of England by the governing class that I find extremely fascinating. It must have been germinating in Chesterton’s day because he wrote a book in 1908 called ‘The Flying Inn’ which is, remarkably, about the Islamification of Britain by the governing class. After being out of print for many years, it has now been re-published here and in America and can be obtained from Amazon. I’ll return to it in a minute.
Chesterton, of course, had far more faith in the common sense of ordinary people than he did in the sanity of intellectuals – particularly scientists. However, in ‘The Flying Inn’, an important and prophetic book, he makes the point several times that the breaking of a specifically Christian morality would inevitably make tyranny possible. Once the link with Christian dogma is severed, then all our traditional liberties are in danger since there is no concrete basis for them. This is why governments tend to favour agnosticism, or even better scepticism, in its populace. A sceptic cannot be tolerant because only a person with a fixed moral standpoint can exercise tolerance. The word itself implies that there is something to be tolerated but not accepted. Without a fixed morality, with nothing either right or wrong, one cannot be tolerant, but only permissive. Governments much prefer this because it is easier to manipulate a populace into accepting what they want if morality does not come into it.
The concrete liberties of Western man, Chesterton said, grew out of the Christian dogma that every man's soul was his own and that, consequently, the individual personality has a sanctity, dignity and responsibility beyond anything that politics or economics can demand. Once that link with Christian dogma is severed, then all our traditional liberties are in danger since there is no other basis for them. Once morality becomes simply what the top people of any period want - then our traditional freedoms can no longer be considered safe.
And indeed, it seems to me that this insight of Chesterton's that without a specifically Christian dogma to deploy, people are easily confused and silenced was amply demonstrated in a debate I attended in the Cambridge Union Society a few years ago. The motion concerned whether or not the events of the 20century disproved the existence of a loving and personal God. ‘This House rejects the idea of a personal God’. The ignorance of the undergraduates was quite stunning with one of the first speakers talking about a 'personal god' exactly if he was referring to a personal computer. 'How can we all have a different, personal god, he raved, 'if we all had a god of our own, they'd all be working at different speeds and with different software and no-one would know which one you were talking about!' Unfortunately, his contribution was not a joke; or even ironic.
Then several impressive clerics argued in scholarly terms with the students - but they did not seem to realize that these young people did not have an idea what they were talking about. It was like talking higher maths to people who hadn't been taught to count! They simply didn't know the terms of reference.
Then a rabbi came rushing on as the last speaker against the motion. He was Smuly Boteach, an American and famous for his eloquence. Since several speakers had mentioned Hitler as the chief reason why God could not possibly exist, this Jew demanded of them why they called Hitler immoral. 'Was it just because he lost the war?' he said. No, of course not, came the indignant reply; it was because he killed people.
He killed his enemies, like every country does, the rabbi said; like you do, he just had a different idea about who deserved to die. He then read out two statements about racial inferiority and the importance, in the modern age, of weeding out inferior people and races, for the common good. Who wrote that? He bellowed, and the students dutifully identified Hitler. 'Wrong', said Boteach, the first was your own dear Darwin and the second, milder one, was Hitler. 'You don't like it. Eh? but it was rational and many people believed that people who were born handicapped or became handicapped through accident or illness should be quietly 'put down'.
The President of the National Secular society rose to her feet like a corpse hearing the last trump. 'Quite right, she shrilled. They are a burden to themselves'. The rabbi was pleased. 'You see, he said, it is rational to remove problems.'
Then he told the by now severely bewildered students a little story. They hear a great man is coming to their area to tell them how best to live, so they come in droves to hear him with rapt attention. He tells them. Don't murder; don't steal; don't take other men's wives or tell lies about them. That's all. And they look at each other; ‘We came here to listen to this? We know this already. What's new?’
'You are those morons', Boteach told the students, because you think your opinions are natural and safe and that you'll never be tempted to change them to something you now think is repugnant. Then he quoted a magisterial piece by Francis Crick, Nobel prize-winning, joint- discoverer of DNA who said that we now have to re-define the words 'birth' and 'death' to mean something more rational than hitherto. Birth should begin at an agreed time after parturition and only after society had decided it wanted the child; death too should take place at an age decreed by the economic needs of society.
What did they think about that? Boteach bellowed at his aghast audience. What would they do if Crick's opinions ever suited the government? What if many governments agreed to support the idea, in the interests, of course, of mankind. What arguments, apart from those they had already dismissed as irrational religion, would they be able to advance against them? There were none, he told them and there were no grounds for condemning Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot. Their morality was just different; more rational and less emotional than theirs. More scientific in fact.
The students were lost and you could almost feel them willing him to take this argument to a conclusion they could understand. The rabbi raised his arms in a dramatic gesture. 'The man who came with the morals written on stone, came from God' he said. It is that and that alone, which makes them unchangeable.' And the students believed him. When the vote was taken, only 34 out of several hundred disbelieved him.
As Chesterton said so many times and in so many different ways. The truth is not given to man by reason alone; it has to be taught as it has been revealed by God. It was a beautiful example to me, both clear and alarming, of how disarmed even the best educated young people are by their ignorance of their religion and the effect it has had on their beliefs and their liberties.
Now to look at 'The Flying Inn' ; a fascinating book which has been rather neglected by critics for a number of reasons but particularly because the phenomenon he describes in it, of Islam rising in this country, seemed like a fantasy when it was written in 1908. Until quite recently, few would have seen the means by which it could possibly come about. That is how far Chesterton’s prophetic imagination stretched.
At first sight, it appears to be simply an exploration of what could happen once the Imperial powers were told to pack-up and go home by the colonies they ruled. As an opponent of imperialism, and a believer in the strong impulse of people to live according to their own culture, Chesterton saw this as inevitable. He also knew that the largely commercial interests which were the driving force of imperialism would not abandon the effort to harness cheap labour in the interest of trade simply because they had been thrown out of the colonies. They would take steps to attract those whom it could no longer rule in their own country to come and settle where they might be similarly employed to maintain profit-margins on the world market.
The main protagonist in the Flying Inn, Dalroy, says ‘The destiny of Empire in the eyes of the governing class, is in four acts. Victory over barbarians. Employment of barbarians. Alliance with barbarians. Conquest by barbarians.
The story of the Flying Inn takes place at the point at which the fourth Act is about to be undertaken. The alien force that stands for the barbarian is the Turks, and the religion under whose philosophy conquest is to be achieved, is Islam.
The eponymous Flying Inn of the title is the last pub in England, since alcohol has been outlawed in the interests of the 'higher philosophy' of Islam, disguised as a health measure - much as banning smoking in pubs has caused thousands to close, so accommodating the objections to alcohol of Islam.
The hero is obliged to move about the country, rather like Alfred when the Danes came, rallying people to his pub sign and reminding them of what had been taken away from them without their leave, or any shred of democratic consultation.
Incidentally, the fact that Chesterton was at pains to show how laws were changed at the behest of powerful people, without the slightest consideration of what the mass of people wanted – is as pertinent today as it was in 1913. Ken Livingstone wrote a book in 1987 called ‘If Voting Changed Anything, They’d Abolish It’. It was because they knew it gave people no power that they gave them a vote. Thus they lowered the age at which you could vote even as they were laying furtive plans to absorb us into a federal Europe. As Charles Moore quoted in the Telegraph, the EU’s founding father, Jean Monnet said “Europe’s nations should be guided towards a super state without their people understanding what is happening.”
As a character in the Flying Inn says, ‘and for whom would you cast your vote if you were against the changing of Britain into something entirely different?' It seemed a wild question then; it doesn’t now.
Returning to the main action, of the Flying Inn, as the people begin to stir themselves towards revolt, the hero notes how extremely biddable the British are until a certain point is reached. ‘Politics has never got the people what they want,’ Dalroy muses; it is regarded as an activity for the rich, literally and figuratively. But because it has been done slowly, they have almost not noticed how their traditions have been undermined. They have bishops who don't believe in God and clerics who are rabidly anti-scripture. Laws are enormously increased even as much crime is ignored - and the police wear fezzes to demonstrate admiration for all things foreign.
There is a hint of nameless horrors being planned on the domestic front, of polygamy, selective breeding and secret courts. The workers in model villages – now called housing estates - are treated literally like half-wits and urged to take exercise, and drink milk.
And yet the people involved in all this are still recognizably English. They grumble and complain but are still trying to be fair to the people manipulating and driving them. They apologise for wanting a bit more freedom - or for yearning for the past - but they are a long-suffering people.
The curious thing is how much they resemble the people who have to suffer race and gender indoctrination in order to get or keep a job today. The mixture of resignation and complaint is a familiar one to us.
The inexplicable hatred of the ruling class for all things English is exemplified by Dalroy's enemy, Lord Ivywood. He is an interesting character because he embodies an attitude commented on by George Orwell when he said that the higher you rise is the intellectual scale, the more likely you are to hate your own country. Indeed, David Pryce Jones has written a book on this very subject, ‘Treason of the Heart,’ in which he traces this contempt for English things back many generations. He thinks that it came about because, in espousing foreign, rather than native, allegiance, it conferred a new identity that seemed virtuous and idealistic. So Ivywood was not an original, or even unusual character; he was simply the fruition of many of the attitudes GK encountered in the pre-war debates on how to get rid of, or at least control, the English poor and their habits.
Ivywood espouses the cause of Islam, not through any belief in, or feeling for, the new religion but because he believes it will give him power. If he can destroy every living tradition of Britain, he can replace it with something that he has fashioned, some new movement that he has made. One can see the embodiment of this when Michael Heseltine, in an interview on the European Union in the Spectator in the late nineties, says that one day the names of the nations comprising the United Kingdom will be as lost and forgotten as the names of the 12 ancient kingdoms of Britain. When he adds, approvingly, that this is inevitable, we are aware of someone who does not love his country, at least as it exists. The strange thing is that he said that Great Britain would simply fade away, like the 12 kingdoms, and he seems to have edited out of his consciousness that they did not simply fade away. They were fought over, step by step and town by town until they were conquered or obliterated. Ivywood, at least, knew how to do it.
In the Flying Inn, the outcome is strictly logical. Since people have lost the knowledge or ability to argue for what they want, they revolt and simply fall on their oppressors. If no one can any longer argue the case for liberty, or right and wrong, then they can only fight about it.
The 'pro-choice’ philosophy so beloved of liberals and feminists everywhere, is simply translated to another field and people declare their 'right to choose', to destroy those whom they cannot fight by other means.
I feel sure that is what Mother Theresa meant, when she said that abortion was the greatest threat to world peace. We may feel free now to dispose of our own unborn children at the rate of 500 a day today, but, by accepting this cruel and unnatural solution to a problem, we are culturally grooming an indifference to evil which, tomorrow, when the mood has changed, could be used against a dozen more likely targets of our anger and discontent.
One of the most sober things Chesterton said came late on in his book ‘Eugenics and Other Evils’ and it is only saved from an untypical pessimism by the use of the word ‘If’. “ If the unique spirit of the English be indeed departed, it matters little that it has been driven out by perversions it had itself permitted, by monsters it had idly let loose. Industrialism and capitalism and the rage for physical science were English experiments in the sense that the English lent themselves to their encouragement; .. . . It may be that this delicate and tenacious spirit has at last evaporated. If so it matters little what becomes of the external experiments of our nation in later times. That at which we look will be a dead thing, alive with its own parasites. The English will have destroyed England.”
That he felt it necessary to express this gloomy view shows how much he had come to realize that the triumph of the birth-controllers, whom he detested almost more than any others, was justified; it had, at last, found a way – through sexual liberty - to curb the poor and ignorant with their full acquiescence.
He was realistic about what had been done to the working classes in his own day; how the poverty and uncertainty of their lives had rendered them passive and biddable; apt subjects of the servile state, that he and Belloc warned against. So he was acutely aware of the damage that can be done to a people by bad ideas. But sexual liberation was a bad idea made irresistible by remorseless propaganda. However, it could not be said that he didn’t foresee the next ‘divine boomerang ‘, as he called it. – because he did, and described it in the Flying Inn. The liberals’ confidence in the irresistible attractiveness of their decadent power is well-founded to the extent that many people today cannot see any way to arrest it. It would take something that is the theme of the Flying Inn to dislodge. A thing both natural, and, for that reason, much practiced – that thing is conflict.
The ruling elite made a fatal mistake that, probably alone, will lead to the collapse of all their confident hopes for the future they have planned. They deliberately engineered, as we now know since John Neather revealed it in 2010, that the Labour Govt, deliberately allowed immigration to escalate to unmanageable proportions in order to secure their vote and, in his words, to ‘stuff traditional English culture’. Setting aside the breathtaking cynicism not to say traitorousness of such a plan, it was also fatal to liberal hopes.
They decided to replace the English lost to abortion and contraception, with people from outside our culture or religion, most of whom had no love of what liberals love and a significant proportion of whom had no intention of living under it. They have another version, as in a distorted mirror, of our own ‘culture of death’ and their growing presence destroys any hope of settled communities in a foreseeable future. Though the characters in this scenario are different from anything we see today, the atmosphere in The Flying Inn reflects our own day with eerie accuracy. How well he knew the enemy. It is a story about our own times with only the details left for us to fill in.
Politics never got the people what they wanted, said Dalroy, and he knew whereof he spoke. Our ruling class knows very well how to make any new political Party unelectable by one means or another, however much the majority might wish t o see the things imposed on them turned back. The people know it too which is why they don’t vote for the fringe Parties who do believe what they believe. They know such Parties are doomed.
They therefore become a many-headed movement rather than a political party; which is actually more dangerous because it is under the radar of the ruling class and they can neither see nor gauge its strength; just sense uneasily, its ominous proliferation. In the Flying Inn we don’t hear about what is happening on the popular level, but there is certainly no political Party on the scene to represent them.
We hear only the thoughts of the main protagonists on the subject and we witness the explosion when the people rise up.
Chesterton mourned the horrors of the Great War but he also knew we went to war with something horrible that we ourselves had nurtured the fantasy of the superman. The Mental Incapacity Act was actually passed into law in April 1914, just months before the Great War began and when the war finished, it was gone. At this time, Chesterton wrote: “A new mood came upon the whole people; Men began to talk strangely of old and common things, of the counties of England, of its quiet landscapes, of motherhood and the half-buried religion of the race. Death shone on the land like a new daylight, making all things vivid and visibly clear.” It was not just because we won the war, that we were saved, but that many evil ideas died in it too.
This mood didn’t last, of course; that is in the nature of moods – as Chesterton observed. He did not live to see how the people of England, battered by one war, rallied to another in 1939; but he certainly foresaw it - and he foresaw the battle after that too.
Chesterton would have known that every wicked enterprise, particularly on a national scale, has in it the seeds of its own demise; didn’t Aristotle say so; but, in the battle for sanity, which is to say civilization, everybody suffers. The common man was always his chief love and concern. Consequently all his efforts and energies were bent towards persuading them to see through the empty, Godless liberalism which would inevitably lead to conflict and suffering - and undoubtedly many did see it too - but they had no political voice; not in his day and not in our own.
It is not difficult to see now how only the extremity of having to fight for our lives can break the iron hold of a decadent liberalism that has overwhelmed us all. In the Flying Inn it was the only way to recover sanity and Chesterton specifically says that, in the conflict, good men on both sides, died. But in conflict, many eternal truths are re-discovered; the fragility of human existence, the sacredness and privilege of life, the importance to us of our Christian religion, the necessity of men defending and women nurturing the family, the value of selfless courage, of brotherhood and truth.
By a strange paradox, inherent in human nature, we often learn what we need to know from suffering as we did from the Great War. Chesterton obviously foresaw the trouble that our neglect of these things would lead us to - and he offered a prophetic vision of the way evil can be overcome and a progressive nightmare, going ever downwards, would end with conflict between opposing sides, each with their own culture of death. And how it can, and would be defeated.
Paradoxically, I believe Chesterton would regard it as hopeful – which is why The Flying Inn very often makes you laugh out loud.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen - thank you.
The Inn Catholics’ 2.4.14.
Posted by G at 07:13
Wednesday, 19 March 2014
|Lynette in full flow at the the Oxford Union|
Time: Wednesday the 2nd of April at 19.30. Lynette used to be a features writer for the Telegraph but, eventually, got tired of it and now writes only when asked about something specific. Two of her books (the first one, 'Good Children', is being published for the fourth time later this year) defend the right of parents to smack their children on the grounds that it is far less bullying than nagging - because children understand it!
Dr Burrows has run a small language school for the last twenty years in her garden. She has six children, twenty-five grandchildren and, tragically, was widowed last year.
Posted by G at 16:49
Thursday, 6 February 2014
This is a transcript of Mike Hennessy's speech on Vincent McNabb. Which was presented on the 12th of November in London. Once again, I would like to thank him for his commitment to all things Bellocian.
Good evening! And thank you for coming this evening.
Tonight I am going to try and make real to you all the person of the Dominican, Father Vincent McNabb. I stress the word person, for I come not so much to speak about his writings (although I will), nor about the theories with which his name is so often associated – the dreaded “D” word! – (although I will), but about how he lived and what his life represented.
We are long removed from the years that formed him. By Queens Victoria’s death Fr McNabb was already in his mid-30s; he died in 1943, seventy years ago, following the Blitz which caused him so much sorrow and so much suffering in those parts of London he loved, and before the tide began to turn in the Second War.
Given this elapse of time, I make no apology for beginning this exposition by invoking the memory of Fr McNabb's presence through the medium of that great writer and great friend of his – the Master, Hilaire Belloc. Under the influence of the Master’s mighty prose – almost the last thing he wrote before the twilight years that claimed him until his death in 1953 – we may begin to catch sight of our quarry, the Apostle of First Principles.
This memorial text was published in a special issue of Blackfriars, shortly after Fr NcNabb's death:
“It was long a commonplace that the world knew nothing of its greatest men. Now that saying was already current a life time ago. It is emphatically true today, and its value and meaning affects us at the present moment more than ever they did in the past, for this is a moment when men are only publicly known by their names, and when the real personality for which the name stands is hidden under a mass of popular print.
Father Vincent McNabb, the Dominican, who has just passed to his reward, intensely illustrates this. The greatness of his character, of his learning, his experience, and, above all, his judgement, was altogether separate from the world about him. Those who knew him marvelled increasingly at every aspect of that personality. But the most remarkable aspect of all was the character of holiness. Everyone who met him, even superficially, discovered this. Those of us who had the honour and rare advantage of knowing him intimately and well over many years find, upon looking back upon that vast experience, something unique, over and above the learning, over and above the application of that learning to Thomism, which is surely the heart of the Dominican affair. To that testimony, which so many have the honour and privilege to present, I can add less than nothing. We know holiness just as we know courage or the unimportant particular of physical beauty and proportion. When we come across that quality of holiness permeating and proceeding from the whole Dominican world, we can only be silent as before some very rare and majestic presentation, wholly foreign to our common experience. It was not the learning, though it had been accumulated over so many years, nor the particular familiarity with the master text of St Thomas, it was the fullness of being which, as we remember what we have lost, is on a scale that appals and dwarfs all general appreciation. It would have been astonishing in any man to have discovered so profound a simplicity united to so huge a spiritual experience. Finding it in this one man, experiencing it as we did, there seems little more to be said unless for the purpose of reiteration.
I can write here from intimate personal experience. Vincent McNabb was with me walking in our garden here in Sussex (which he knew so well!) on the chief occasion of my life, a moment like all such moments when the soul was in the presence of death and therefore of eternity.
I do not see how this testimony can be amplified. I have known, seen and felt holiness in person. In that presence all other qualities sink away into nothingness. I have seen holiness at its full in the very domestic paths of my life, and the memory of that experience, which is also a vision, fills me now as I write – so fills me that there is nothing more to say. Men of this calibre are better known in their absence than in their presence. With that absence the rest of my life will, I think, be filled. There are many indeed who can add to this testimony, but I can only add to it by an astonished silence, contemplating holiness in person and all that was meant thereby. Of this he now has complete visions while we who write of him grope and are in darkness. Under the protection of that soul and its intelligence and virtue combined, I must fall back upon silence. Never have I see or known anything on such a scale.”
The “chief occasion of my life” of which Belloc speaks, was – as some here will know – the death of his wife, Elodie, just before midnight on the Feast of the Purification, 1914, something from which Belloc's Faith barely recovered at the time, and which marked him until his death. We will have cause later to return to the friendship between Fr McNabb and Belloc which so sustained the latter – and inspired the former – over the rest of their lives.
Now, I have entitled my talk tonight “Father McNabb: the Apostle of First Principles”, perhaps a` rather dry, yet I hope not too intimidating, title. I will explain why I have called it this a little later, as I fear it may need some explanation – or “unpacking”. I will also unpack some of his books from my venerable ‘McNabb-sack’ to read from – no man should travel without books!
Anyway, why am I here to speak to you about Fr McNabb? Fr McNabb entered my life in my late twenties, although, as a disciple of G K Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc from my late teens, his name and some glow of his reputation had already reached me. I moved to London from the glorious North in 1992, that year entered the service of the House of Commons – where I still remain as a parliamentary official (non-party, non-Government – fear not!) – and married in 1993. Our first child arrived in 1995, and another seven followed: during the course of this delightful family growth, we moved from London to Reading in order to find a place we could afford where there was light, refreshment and relative peace.
All this is relevant! My work in Parliament, and my life as a husband and a father, are the two principal contexts in which my admiration for Fr McNabb grew. With every Session of Parliament, with each chilling anti-family Bill receiving Royal Assent from the Mother of Parliaments (would a mother kill her children?), with each cheap and stupid insult aimed at my wife (only in my absence) from complete strangers about the growing size of our family – oddly, usually at bus-stops – I realised with increasing passion the relevance and power of his mission, his reaching out, to people over seventy years ago now, about his fears for society and family.
But I come here not to canonise Fr McNabb – but to make him and how he lived and preached better known. I have lived within the penumbra of his thoughts and his prayers and his hopes – and fears – for some fifteen years. My admiration for him is undimmed by time. He died 70 years ago – but in terms of the direct relevance of much of what he had to say, it could have been yesterday.
He was of a different sort to these two friends, Belloc and Chesterton – two men who revered him. Chesterton I see very much as a fisherman, although he spent a good deal of his life drawing people towards a Truth he had not yet formally accepted. Belloc is more of a shepherd, albeit often a lonely one, especially after the death of his dear wife, Elodie – alone in the hills at evening. His writings pulse with the conviction of a man deeply, almost desperately, attached to the Truth that is the Faith, and which those who listened or read his sonorous and indefatigable words would also feel – and be comforted, consoled and strengthened.
Yes, Fr McNabb was of a different kind. I will return to this later, after I have set out my stall – or, rather, his stall – or, indeed, the stall of the Church, for he was always at pains to say that he only spoke as the Church spoke – but to me his life was dedicated not so much to drawing people into the Church, to the Radiant Hearth from the Disorder and Darkness without (which of course he did), nor to strengthening the spirit of those who already lived by that Hearth to defend it from its vile and stupid enemies (which of course he did); but to drive all of us, both within and without, back to first principles, to understand not just from custom or habit or from obedience or from fashion or fear of offence or human respect what is the Truth – and, from an understanding of that Truth, for us to draw closer to Christ, to Almighty God and thus to Blessedness.
His was not an easy task – it was ascetic, hard, driven, liable to create as many enemies as friends, to drive some to mock him, to hate him. But this is perhaps the role of the alter Christus throughout the ages.
So who was Father McNabb?
He was born Joseph McNabb, at Portaferry near Belfast on 8th July 1868. His father was a sea captain whom he seldom saw: his mother was just that, a mother, and – in his eyes – all the more blessed for being “just” that (before her marriage, at a very young age, she had occupied an important sales and administration position in a New York department store). Not that she didn’t have other things than bringing up the children and managing the home to occupy herself with: one of Father McNabb’s first memories is of his mother taking him on a sick visit to a lady with a cancerous growth in her chest whom Mrs McNabb would wash and comfort. Mrs McNabb appears always to have played a leading part in parochial charity, and frequently to have commanded her children’s assistance with her charitable work. She was the mother of eleven children in total, Joseph McNabb being the tenth. In his later years he wrote a book, called Eleven, Thank God! which he dedicated to his mother and which stands as a great apologia pro familia magna. Family always held a central place in Father McNabb’s world, as it indeed holds a central place in Rerum Novarum, a Papal text he revered.
Although born in Ireland, by the age of 14 he had moved with his family to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on account of his father’s work. A move to London had been considered but the capital was thought to be too terrible a place for the bringing-up of children. Until he was 16, Joseph McNabb continued to board for most of the year at St Malachy’s in Belfast. However, the influence of the time he spent in Newcastle was important to him, for his family moved into the parish of St Dominic’s which was – unsurprisingly – run by the Dominican Order. He was profoundly impressed by all he saw of Dominican life and spirituality, of its asceticism, its love for Holy Scripture and its profound learning; and so, after leaving St Malachy’s and taking one unsatisfactory year at St Cuthbert’s Grammar School in Newcastle, he decided to become a Dominican. Curiously, what appears to have been a very significant motive behind Father McNabb’s vocation was the same thing that drove Chesterton into the Catholic Church – fear of Hell. As he put it: “I don’t want to go to Hell; I think I’ll go to the Novitiate!” Undoubtedly, while many reasons can be identified for the motivation behind his vocation, the simple fact was that he felt God was calling him to become a friar in order to save his soul.
At the age of 17 – despite his father’s initial anger at his son deciding to pursue a vow of poverty: “I’ll never, no I’ll never consent to a child of mine becoming a voluntary pauper!”: an anger which only abated after a visit from a Dominican from the local Priory to explain the nature of poverty – Joseph McNabb entered the Dominican novitiate at Woodchester. Joseph McNabb’s entrance to the Order coincided with the beginnings of a comparative deluge of able and devout novices who entered in his year and the three or four years following, novices who – once professed – formed the basis of the Order’s rise to prominence during the first half of the twentieth century, principally under the aegis of Father Bede Jarrett.
Father McNabb was ordained in September 1891, shortly after his 23rd birthday, and in the year of Rerum Novarum. For Fr McNabb, Rerum Novarum, the Papal Encyclical “On the Condition of the Working Classes”, was a foundational text. It set out a clear path through the controversies of drear socialism and grasping capitalism. Key excerpts from it he was to get his novices to memorise and it stood as founding text for the Distributist movement in later years. He was the most brilliant scholar of his year in the novitiate, although the following years were to see some greater academic minds entering the Order. One of Father McNabb’s contemporaries wrote that “only Father Humbert Everest – who had left the novitiate for Louvain two years earlier – could have challenged [Father] McNabb’s intellectual supremacy”. Indeed, Father McNabb followed Father Everest to Louvain for further studies.
As an aside, while at Louvain, Fr McNabb developed a strong love for the people of Catholic Belgium. When the Great War broke out he wrote and spoke with great energy to raise funds and assist the refugees fleeing before the German onslaught. He wrote a little known book – a collection of essays – Europe’s Ewe Lamb, dedicated to the plight of that country: for his work he received a medal from the King of Belgium which he handed over to his Prior just moments before his death.
By 1894, three years after his ordination, Father McNabb was sent back to Woodchester with his Lectorate in Sacred Theology. (He took his Ad Gradus examinations in Rome which led to his Mastership in 1910, when he also had an audience with Pope St Pius X).
For 26 years, from 1894 to 1920, Father McNabb was sent hither and thither as holy Obedience demanded. He taught novices at Woodchester for 3 years upon his return from Louvain and was then sent to Hawkesyard (where the senior novices were now taught) again for 3 years, to teach theology. For the following 6 years, 1900 to 1906, he was returned to Woodchester as Prior (at the tender age of 32): in 1906 he went to St Dominic’s Priory in north-west London for the first time, to serve as its parish-priest for two years. From there he was plucked back in 1908 to become Prior of Holy Cross, Leicester, for 6 years until 1914. In 1914 he was elected Prior of Hawkesyard, where he faced his severest personal and spiritual tests, a position he served in for 3 years: for a further 3 years he served there as Professor of Dogma before returning to St Dominic’s Priory in London in 1920, where he served again as parish-priest until his death on 17th June 1943, some 23 years later. During these busy years he worked as assistant to Fr Shapcote on his translation of the St Thomas’s Summa into English, and he was a regular at the Catholic Evidence Guild platforms at Speaker’s Corner and Parliament Hill: Frank Sheed said that if the Guild were to have patron saint, it should be Fr McNabb. He also lectured weekly for over twenty years in the University of London Extension Scheme on St Thomas his writings.
After that rather breathless chronology, I will pause to offer you one of my favourite tributes to Father McNabb – a poem from the pen of Maurice Baring, written through the eyes and ears and reflections of an unbeliever, a friend, who wrote to him thus:
“I have twice heard Fr Vincent preach. It was each time the most exquisite, intimate, unique experience. When he began in his halting and wandering way I was disappointed; but in five minutes I had learned to attune my ear, and my attention was closely held. I was entranced and hardly felt human when I came away – I felt so light – that is memorable; the lightness – the taking flight that had happened – something divine.... I noticed that he often did not remember the exact words of his text, or of many parts of the Bible – when he wanted to repeat them – but must find and read them anew. He was so filled with remembering that the actual words meant nothing to him – but their meaning only. Now at last I have heard what I always longed to hear – a man inspired.”
At least one of the occasions on which this unbeliever heard Fr McNabb preach was at Cecil Chesterton’s funeral: sadly, no copy of the sermon survives, but Belloc referred to it as the greatest piece of sacred oratory he had ever heard.
These comments Baring rendered thus:
“A poet heard you preach and told me this:
While listening to your argument unwind
He seemed to leave the heavy world behind;
And liberated in a bright abyss
All burdens and all load and weight to shed;
Uplifted like a leaf before the wind,
Untrammelled in a region unconfined,
He moved as lightly as the happy dead.
And as you read the message of Our Lord
You stumbled over the familiar word,
As if the news now sudden to you came;
As if you stood upon the holy ground
Within the house filled with mighty sound
And lit with Pentecostal tongues of flame.”
This poem and this testimony remind me to mention what I consider to be amongst the most powerful of Fr McNabb's writings today – his often small books of scriptural meditations and his retreat sermons. I must mention these here lest I forget later: there is something in the simplicity of approach taken in his writing of them, in his preaching of the sermons, that touches me. It is I suppose that intimacy to which the friend of Baring referred. They are full of compassion, consolation and hope – yet founded upon the necessary acknowledgement of our sinfulness, our wretchedness before Almighty God. Fr McNabb was also an enemy of timidity in prayer, about which in one these small volumes he has this to say:
“Prayer, like generalship, must sometimes be daring. To ask a king for a trifle is to insult him. The thief daringly asked Jesus to give him the Kingdom of Heaven – to give it in a moment – and to give it after a life of sin. And it was given him, even as he prayed.”
But Holy Scripture for him also touched upon society and the State and upon the common good, not just upon individual souls. An example of how reflection upon a short passage of Scripture influenced his teaching about society and economics can be found in his book, Nazareth or Social Chaos. As with many of his essays, Father McNabb’s mind was set a-whirring by a text – in this case a line from St John’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. St John records how those who were hungry took “as much as they would”. Father McNabb comments:
“If the Eternal Wisdom, instead of miraculously providing bread and fishes, had provided money, St John would have been unable to say that as much as each one wanted Jesus gave.”
As ever there is much to unpack from this text and from Father McNabb’s comment. Together they reflect upon the nature of charity, upon the practice of economy; they touch upon social welfare, and they of course give some insight into how Christ allowed His Will to be conditioned, as it were, by the will of Man. Father McNabb goes on:
“In a system mainly of things, the average person may be trusted to limit his wants by his needs. But in a system mainly of tokens, the average person cannot be trusted to limit his wants by his needs… no man desires an infinite meal… no man desires an infinite house… no man desires an infinite field to till… but the undue desire of these tokens tends to a certain infinity,.. for tokens...excite an unsatisfied indefinite desire.”Thus, desire for money is infinite. Thus also desire for other tokens, other shadows of real things, is likewise infinite. This desire is made even stronger by the realisation that money has no value but only represents price and prices shift even while value is constant. But there are other tokens than money. The world of fashion is full of shadows and tokens – fashion in clothes, fashion in music, art: the fickle World creates an endless flow of ever-changing and never necessary things which stand for wealth, or standing, or for ‘good taste’, or for position in society, or for ‘up-to-dateness’. The ephemera of modernity stoke the infinite desire for those things which are neither necessary nor truly real.
“Everywhere there will be the very definite desire to have more and more token-wealth. The very uncertainty of the future value of this token will heighten and foster the desire.”
Even setting aside monetary value, i.e. price, the “fashion value” of all these shadow-things changes almost by the hour. Those things of fashion that are bought today are tomorrow worthless as things of fashion. It considers poverty to be the absence of these tokens and shadows. In its confusion, part deliberate and part the result of ignorance – it has made the word ‘poverty’ stand for a vice rather than for a virtue.
“Bethlehem and Nazareth poverty is not a defect to be remedied, but a fundamental condition of all ultimate remedy and redemption.”
Indeed, Father McNabb was always concerned with the primary, with real, things and saw any work or activity that moved even one stage away from the primary thing as less worthy and possibly less virtuous. As a result he loathed international finance which was as far removed from reality and the primary things as it was possible to go. As he put it, cuttingly:
“Some men wrest a living from nature. This is called work. Some men wrest a living from those who wrest a living from nature. This is called trade. Some men wrest a living from those who wrest a living from those who wrest a living from nature. This is called finance.”
One can almost hear his lip curling in contempt, except that such contempt for others he forbade himself. Somewhat sorrowfully I wonder where he would have placed my own toil as a parliamentary official.
I will now say a little more about Father McNabb’s life as a friar in order to put more flesh upon him – so that I may make more progress in my attempt to 'conjure him up' (if that phrase is not considered blasphemous with such a subject) amongst us all here tonight.
When a move to beatify Fr McNabb was being mooted in the 1950s, Father Ronald Knox was asked for his opinion of the Dominican. He wrote:
“Father Vincent is the only person I have ever known about whom I have felt, and said more than once, ‘He gives you some idea of what a saint must be like.’ There was a kind of light about his presence which didn’t seem to be quite of this world.”
Even amongst his fellow Dominicans, Father McNabb was considered to be an ascetic. As Prior of Woodchester, Hawkesyard and Holy Cross he had developed a reputation for being hard on others, but certainly no harder than he was on himself: and he could always lend someone a sympathetic ear, something he never seems to have had for himself! He ate sparingly – he blamed his “Protestant stomach” (blamed on his baptism on 12th July!) – and his face and body demonstrated the hard self-denial of his religious life. He slept on the floor of his cell – which floor he scrubbed daily – and his bed lay unused even through illness and his final death-pangs. He had no chair in his room until the last days of his life when – still refusing to lie on his bed – he finally consented to be seated in a chair. When writing, he knelt at a table surmounted by a crucifix and small statue of the Blessed Virgin: on the table lay his only books, a copy of the Vulgate, his Breviary, and the Summa Theologica.
He kept a compendious box of notes, all written on scraps of paper – the backs of cards, used envelopes and the like – on a huge variety of subjects some penned in English, some in Latin, some in Greek and some even in Hebrew. Everything he wrote was hand-written: he abominated most machinery and had a particular vehemence for type-writers! Hilaire Belloc, who shared many views with Father McNabb, always had a fascination for machinery and considered the type-writer – and the telephone (something else Father McNabb loathed) – as a great boon. It would no doubt have been both interesting and amusing to have been a fly-on-the-wall as they discussed the desirability of the ‘automated writing machine’!
Of course, as a religious, indeed, as a Catholic, prayer was central to his life. His profound attachment to Holy Mass and the Office aside, Father McNabb devoted much of his energy to praying, and to encouraging others to pray, the Holy Rosary. As a man of formidable intellect and deep learning he had nothing but impatience for those who claimed that the Rosary was a prayer, a devotion, for simple beginners, for the unlettered, for those who have not yet ascended to the sublime heights of spirituality. People who said such things rendered Father McNabb almost speechless with indignation. “The Rosary”, he would say, “is the safest and surest way to union with God through mental prayer”. What impressed him the most about the Holy Rosary was the prayerfulness of many of the faithful who had been taught or had grown up to pray to God through Our Blessed Lady. Again and again he would say: “Most of the contemplatives I have met are in the world, and these have found union with God through the Rosary.” Devotion to the Rosary, he insisted, should be fundamental to a Catholic’s prayer life. As he said during a sermon on Rosary Sunday on 1936:
“The Incarnation is the centre of all our spiritual life.. One of the means by which it is made so is the Holy Rosary. There is hardly any way of arriving at some realisation of this great mystery equal to that of saying the Rosary. Nothing will impress it so much on your mind as going apart to dwell in thought, a little space each day, in Bethlehem, on Golgotha, on the Mount of the Ascension.”
Father McNabb wore a homespun habit – he only had the one at any one time – and marched around London in the same heavy hob-nailed boots from year to year. Over his shoulders as he trudged about the streets he had slung his “McNabb-sack”, a capacious if battered means of carriage for his Vulgate, Breviary, and whatever other books he needed. Although he was not averse to rail travel, or public transport in general, he usually refused to travel by car or by cab: the long distances he had to cover in London from St Dominic’s Priory to the various convents to which he was chaplain, to Speakers’ Corner and to Parliament Hill, he managed on foot and at a startling pace.
There is a moving account of an occasion when Father McNabb actually accepted a cab-ride back to his Priory. For months he had made sick calls to a young girl – an only child – who was dying. The mother – who had asked him to come – was a Catholic; the largely absent father was not, and moreover was one of his chief hecklers at Parliament Hill. They were a poor family, lodged with another family in a single, small room in a crumbling tenement block near St. Pancras Station. Sadly, the daughter died: McNabb said the Requiem Mass. Just a few weeks later the mother died – she had been ill throughout her daughter’s illness but had said nothing about it to anyone. McNabb again said the Requiem Mass. As he left the graveyard the husband approached him, gave him a flower from a funeral bouquet that Father McNabb had arranged from a pious benefactor, and asked him how he was planning to return to his Priory. The sky was thunderous and rain was beginning to fall. Father McNabb replied that he planned to return as he had come – on foot. The husband – trebly poor now – pulled from his pocket enough money to pay for a cab: at first Father McNabb demurred and then he realised that this was the widower’s mite. With tears in his eyes he accepted the money. He never forgot this instance of simple charity. As he wrote:
“Blessed are the poor! Few things have ever touched me more than that. Out of his poverty he offered me my fare. Imagine that coming from one who has not the faith. What am I to do when I see him next? To kiss his feet would be unworthy of him. I shall pray... that God may give him the consolation of the faith.”
The full extent of Father McNabb’s own charity will of course never be known. What he did privately remained private even after the public death that we will shortly be considering. One known instance may have to suffice. In another rotting block of flats close to Camden Lock lived an old bed-ridden woman. For months, possibly for years, someone came regularly to talk to her, to tidy the room and to scrub the floor. A few weeks after Father McNabb had died, a group of people living in rooms near to the woman’s were discussing who would do the job as the old lady who had come to do the work before had evidently stopped coming. Only the bed-ridden lady’s best friend knew that this ‘lady’ had in fact been Father McNabb, on his way to Parliament Hill in his long habit, dropping in for a half an hour or so to see the old lady.
Charity also burned strong in him in his friendship with Hilaire Belloc.
Fr McNabb first met Hilaire Belloc following the publication of Belloc's CTS pamphlet on socialism in 1911. Belloc had heard a sermon preached by Father McNabb earlier that year and he been very impressed by what he had heard. This was a period of febrile political activity in England – and abroad – and Belloc had for many years been developing, largely under continental influence, his political and economic views. These had been expounded to a largely deaf audience during his 5 years as an MP. After that he worked with Cecil Chesterton to write that still controversial critique of the then current parliamentary system, The Party System, and then his pungent analysis of the social and economic woes of the day, The Servile State.
Fr McNabb first visited Kingsland, Belloc's Sussex home, in 1913. At this point, Fr McNabb was still in clerical black and had not yet adopted as his customary attire the Dominican habit (we must remember that religious were advised against wearing their habits in public and needed permission from their superior to do so at this time). The next time Fr McNabb visited was on the evening of 3 February 1914, the day after Elodie Belloc's death in February 1914 – on this occasion, Belloc's daughter Eleanor recalled, Fr McNabb was dressed in his Dominican habit. He stayed with the family until after Elodie's funeral and said Holy Mass next to her coffin in the large hall at Kingsland every morning.
Thereafter, Fr McNabb was a frequent visitor, and until 1919 he would stay most Holy Weeks to celebrate the Triduum and the Easter Mass in Belloc's chapel. In later years, once had had moved back to St Dominic's Priory in London and his duties increased he would instead arrive in Easter Week for a few days and began to visit at Christmas, arriving on Christmas Eve to celebrate the three Masses of Christmas. When one reads Belloc's beautiful essay, A Remaining Christmas, we must imagine the ascetic Dominican in cheerful stillness at the periphery of the narrative.
Their friendship was very strong and, as many other friends noted, after the death of Cecil Chesterton (in 1918, just weeks after the Armistice: he died from trench fever), no-one had any appreciable influence over Hilaire Belloc except Fr McNabb, who held the Dominican in great “awe and reverence”. Belloc’s behaviour was different in the presence of Fr McNabb, his daughter, Eleanor, noted – restrained and careful in conversation at table.
In 1919, Fr McNabb wrote to Belloc:
“I often ask God to further you in your great battles for the poor and for their Master.”They shared a deep love for 'the poor of Jesus Christ' (I am reminded of Belloc's glorious poem, written probably when he was in his early twenties, called The Poor of London where he uses that very phrase) and a great love for the Truth, married with the desire to lighten others' darkness and bring the consolation and wisdom of that Truth to those who most needed it. Towards the end of the 1920s (after the great battles with H G Wells but before the tussles with G C Coulton), Belloc felt the fight beginning to weary him almost to the point of collapse. He wrote to Fr McNabb asking for his permission to give up controversy as it was damaging his Faith, but Fr Vincent told him he must continue under the strain and burden of that controversy. As Fr McNabb wrote in 1936 to his good friend:
“You have been a light-house for almost more than the run of a life-time. It has brought you a certain loneliness amongst the sea and winds.
But your moments of conscious loneliness can hardly be more than moments when you know – as we must make you know – how many your light has guided and how many your heroism of accepted loneliness has heartened.
What I personally owe to the light-house that you are, I can only dimly discern and can never repay.”
When Belloc suffered a stroke in 1942, Fr McNabb – just one year away from his own death – rushed to Kingsland fearing his good friend might die and wanting to be at his side. Belloc's daughter, Eleanor, remembers McNabb at Belloc's bed-side, speaking to him in a whisper as he slept and muttering “sancte Belloc” under his breath.
When Belloc's neighbour, the (very) lapsed Catholic poet and Arabist, Wilfred Scawen Blunt, was nearing death, it was Fr McNabb whom Belloc asked to visit. Blunt was reconciled to the Church by Fr McNabb before his death. Of such was the practical nature of their friendship.
G K Chesterton, a good friend of Fr McNabb's, wrote this of Fr McNabb, a man he said was “walking on a crystal floor over his head”, in an introduction to a collection of essays some nine years before he died:
“...I am nervous about writing... what I think about Fr Vincent McNabb; for fear he should somehow get hold of the proofs and cut it out. But I will sat briefly and firmly that he is one of the few great men I have met in all my life; that he is great in many ways, mentally and morally and mystically and practically; and that next to nobody nowadays has ever heard of him... [but] nobody who ever met or saw or heard Father McNabb has ever forgotten him.”Fr McNabb of course sang the Salve Regina at Chesterton's bedside as he died.
I would like now to cite some quotations from Fr McNabb’s own works to throw light on what he was saying to his contemporaries.
This first piece is from the introduction to the book, Old Principles and the New Order, published in 1942, which was a collection of his essays printed in Catholic journals over the previous twenty years. As such, it serves as a useful introduction to his thought over those years of his public apostolate:
“This book rests upon certain dogmatic and moral principles, certain undeniable facts, and it makes certain practical proposals.
The first principle is that there is a God, our Creator, Whom we must love and serve; and Whom we cannot love and serve without loving and serving our fellow creatures.
The second principle is that the Family is the unit of all social life; and that therefore the value of all social proposals must be tested by their effect on the Family.
The third (psychological) principle is that from the average man we cannot expect more than average virtue. A set of circumstances demanding from the average man more than average (i.e. heroic) virtue is called an Occasion of Sin.
The fourth (moral) principle is that occasions of sin should be changed, if they can possibly be changed, i.e. they must be overcome by flight not fight.
The great observed fact, of world-wide incidence, is that in large industrialized urban areas (and in town-infested rural areas) normal family life is psychologically and economically impossible; because from the average parent is habitually demanded more than average virtue...
...From this observed fact that the industrialized town is an occasion of sin we conclude that, as occasions of sin must be fled,... Flight from the Land must be now be countered by Flight to the Land.”The occasion of sin which Father McNabb was particularly – but not exclusively – referring to was the temptation placed before poor families living in poor conditions to resort to methods of birth control (“no birth and no control” as G K Chesterton so famously put it – “race suicide” as McNabb put it rather more grimly).
As Father McNabb wrote in 1925:
“Full family life must be the acid test of any system calling itself civilisation. But under our present system the possibility of full family life is practically and explicitly dead. As wages and rents now are, there is no possibility for the average working man to have the average family. In order to avoid this average family only two courses are now open to him. He may exercise birth-control by abstinence, which is sinless, or by neo-Malthusian methods of mortal sin. His choice is therefore between mortal sin and what is for the average individual heroic virtue. In other words, the town civilisation of today is for the vast majority of the married classes a proximate occasion of sin. But it is teaching of the Church that we must fly the proximate occasions of sin. To remain in unnecessary occasions of sin is to be guilty of the sin we should fly.”Yes, the industrialised town, the City, what it so easily provides and sustains – and denies – is an occasion of sin. Father McNabb in thus describing the City had in mind principally its temptation to race-suicide, to contraceptive greed, to sloth and selfishness. But he was also thinking of its preoccupation with token and unreal wealth, with the sham of fashion, with luxury and excess, with its focus on things that are to do primarily with enjoyment rather than with charity – giving to self rather than giving of self. “A State organized for leisure is a State organized for pleasure. And a State organized for pleasure is a State organized for – Hell!” The City will tend always to decadence: the moderns revel in their decadence, too dulled or stupid to realize that decadence is decay and decay precedes collapse.
Yet who, upon reading this description of city-living as an occasion of sin, does not recall that passage from Cardinal John Henry Newman’s novel, Callista, describing the farm-worker, Agellius, entering the city of Carthage for the first time?
“The sights now shock and now allure: fearful sights – not here and there but on the stateliest structures and on the meanest hovels, in public offices and private houses, in central spots and at the corners of the streets, in bazaars and shops and house doors, in the rudest workmanship and in the highest art, in letters or in emblems or in paintings – the insignia and pomp of Satan and of Belial, of a reign of corruption and a revel of idolatry which you can neither endure nor escape. Wherever you go it is all the same – you are accosted, affronted, publicly, shamelessly, now as if a precept of religion, now as if a homage to nature, by all which, as a Christian, you shrink from and abjure.”
While the state of involuntary poverty and destitution in which so many of his contemporaries lived and worked filled him with grief and anguish – he regularly records in his books the latest statistics concerning the numbers of families living in one room (or even sharing one room) in the filthy and crumbling tenement blocks of London and elsewhere – it was largely amongst these people that he worked, and to these people he ministered and preached. He was consistent in urging his congregation, his audience, to leave him and to leave London. He encouraged all those who could to desert the Babylon of London – “Babylon-on-Thames” or “Babylondon”, as he often referred to it – and he vowed to remain behind to serve those who could not, or would not, leave: at least until the way had been prepared by those who had gone before them into the countryside. And it must be remembered that this Flight to the Land was no foolish idea: towards the end of Father McNabb’s life the Government was itself was in the face of war to encourage a return to the land, so as to increase agricultural production from degraded and untended fields and meadows.
Of course, the primary reason for Father McNabb’s detestation of squalid and degrading urban conditions was the effect they had upon family life. The family is the prime unit of Christian society – indeed of any society – and precedes the State in every respect. Parents' rights need to be defended in order to preserve the family.
“The Rights of the Parent are Natural Rights…. When therefore a child is born its parents find themselves possessed of certain rights which, though occasioned by their own acts of marriage and procreation, are not determined by their own will, nor by the will of the State, nor by the will of man, but by the Will of God. The Rights of the Parent are prior to the Rights of the State. This is clearly seen by those who recognise the Catholic doctrine that the family as a family is prior to the State. Not only in idea but in facts, families must have preceded States…. It is truer to say that the State has duties towards the family than that families have duties towards the State. A nation’s chief duty towards this living and essential thing is to safeguard it… Thus the home, with its dowry of natural rights, is an older institution than any law or Parliament of men.”Father McNabb knew that all economic, social, and political acts had some effect upon the family: it was by their effect upon the family that he would measure their worth or morality. The family was what he called “the Nazareth measure”. As he wrote in his book, The Church and the Land, in an essay that was an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister of the day:
“...the NAZARETH MEASURE of length and weight and worth is the Family – that terrestrial “Holy and Undivided Three”. Let no guile of social usefulness betray you into hurting the authority of the Father, the chastity of the Mother, the rights and therefore the property of the Child. Social and economic laws are more subtle but not less infallible than physical laws. No programme of good intentions will undo the mischief caused by an interference with family life... All our personal and social building, to be lasting, must be trued by the measures of that little school of seers whose names are the very music of life – Jesus, Mary, Joseph!”
The family helped to underpin the preservation of the natural moral order, at least in part, before the Incarnation, and, since Christ's Birth, Life, Passion, Death and Resurrection, has acted to preserve true civilisation and the Faith through the decadence of a disintegrating Roman Empire and the turbulence that followed its dismemberment. Monasteries are rightly credited with the salvation of true culture and society – but without Catholic families the monasteries would not just have been empty – they would not have existed at all.
As he saw it, only the family, and particularly the Catholic family, can provide the necessary foundation for a re-birth of natural moral law and for the re-baptism of a society fit to have Christ as its King. The Nazareth Measure is vital to help build a country of saints, of holy fathers and holy mothers and children who wish to grow up to serve God in Truth and in Charity. When it is lost to sight or to understanding, the family will fail and true society and culture will fall. When it is kept at the forefront of mind and action it will restore the family to its primacy of honour in the servant State.
Father McNabb knew the importance of the strength that he had derived from his natural family, and the strength that he daily drew from his new spiritual family, his Dominican community. He always stressed that what changed when he “moved” from his natural family to his supernatural family were not the virtues he pursued but the vows he had taken. He was keenly aware of the need for lay people to be inspired amidst the many snares of the modern world to pursue heroic virtue, to imitate the evangelical counsels so far as their duties of state permitted. In his book, Old Principles and the New Order, he writes about charity, poverty, and obedience:
“[E]ven Catholics have sometimes come to think that the three virtues behind these religious vows were only for religious, whereas the three virtues are binding upon all individuals, and in some measure, upon that grouping of individuals... which we moderns...confusedly call the State’.”
On one level what Father McNabb says here is a truism – we must all strive to be chaste, poor in spirit, let us say, and obedient: but upon closer examination Father McNabb is pointing out that these three virtues should be as much a daily call to arms as they are to the religious who have professed vows in them. For after all, as Father McNabb said:
“...the religious men or women who have publicly promised God to keep poverty, chastity, obedience are not thereby bound to more poverty, more chastity, more obedience than if they had remained as lay-folk in the world.”
Moreover, Father McNabb added:
“[I]t need hardly be pointed out that the poverty of work and thrift, the self-control of virginal and conjugal chastity, the obedience to rulers and to law, are of the greatest social value and need.”In many articles Father McNabb traced the decadent and withering effect of the State upon society to its neglect of poverty – through reckless expenditure, financial mismanagement, usurious practices – to its neglect of obedience – by going against the natural moral law and the laws of revealed religion – and to its neglect of chastity – by permitting, even encouraging, activities that undermined sexual or conjugal morality. Just as every individual should strive to be poor, chaste, and obedient, so too the State should aim to adhere to these three cardinal virtues.
One of Father McNabb’s hardest lessons to his own and to our generation concerns poverty. To Father McNabb poverty meant having enough for your duties of state but no more: having no excess, no extravagance, no luxury – always giving, as Christian charity dictates, to those less fortunate what you yourself or those for whom you are responsible do not need. (And, indeed, distributive justice under the natural law also requires this.) Certainly, what constituted “enough” in Father McNabb’s eyes would be considered as much too little by most of our contemporaries and even by most of us. But he was not recommending that we all become mendicants or fall into a life of helpless wretchedness and pauperism – only that we attempt to be more self-sufficient, restrict our desires, control our consumption, limit our needs, and give from any over-abundance we possess.Many Catholics throughout the ages have fallen into complacency on this point by retreating behind the wall of “spiritual poverty”, by allowing themselves anything and everything on the basis that they are poor in spirit. Father McNabb of course realised the importance of spiritual poverty; realised that it was possible for a poor man to be more avaricious and more greedy than a rich man. But he also realised the dangers of riches, the difficulty of achieving spiritual poverty when surrounded by excess – and he also realised that the demands of justice and especially of charity required people to have less than they would probably like or might otherwise have had. Furthermore, he saw the embrace of poverty as a means of defeating the increasing materialism and destitution of the world about him.
We too easily perhaps these days dismiss calls for renunciation of material goods when simply trying to live a faithful Catholic life seems to involve renunciation enough – but turning away from the lures of the World, the Flesh and the Devil is not the same as turning resolutely towards God, and committing ourselves without cavil to live for Jesus' sake and the love of souls.
My final word on this subject – or rather Fr McNabb's – comes from his book, The Church and the Land: it concerns the young man with great possessions from the Gospels:
“Only once did anyone come to Jesus after speech with Him and go away sad. This was the young man who had great desire to have everlasting life. But he also had ‘great possessions’. He did not know that for him the way to the joy of life was to accept the challenge of Jesus, ‘Go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven. And come follow me.’ He did not realise that his invitation to follow the poor Babe of Bethlehem, the poor man of Galilee, the poor outcast of Golgotha, was a call to enter the narrow path of perfect joy. He could not leave the things which sooner or later would leave him. He clung to his great possessions on earth rather than seek treasure in Heaven, and left the joy of wilful poverty and the following of Jesus for the sadness of wilful wealth and the service of Mammon.”
Before I move on to describe Father McNabb’s death, I feel I must counter-act any possible impression that Father McNabb must have been a miserable fanatic. He had a well-developed sense of humour – and of mischief, and was adept as dealing, often lightly but effectively, with hecklers at Speakers' Corner or on Parliament Hill. He once famously compared hearing nuns’ confessions to being pecked slowly to death by ducks. On a more serious note, he once attended a public meeting on the subject of the Mental Degeneracy Bill then passing through the House of Commons (the occasion of his striking up a friendship with Chesterton who was also opposing the Bill and with whom he often shared a platform). After listening to various medical experts explaining how they would certify as mental degenerates, and as a result sterilise, many types with whom Father McNabb was familiar in his pastoral work, the good friar stood up and, having been called to speak by the chairman of the meeting, bellowed: “I am a moral expert and I certify you all as moral degenerates!” He stormed out of the meeting to rapturous applause and the meeting broke up in disarray.
As Fr Delaney, who preached at Fr McNabb's funeral, later wrote:
“He was the happiest, least depressed member of the community, and he was the life and soul of merriment when the time for recreation came. Renunciation meant for him foregoing lesser joys for the sake of the supreme real joy.”
Now, if it is true that it is possible to tell something important about a person from the manner of their death then it seems only appropriate that we should now turn to the last long weeks of Father McNabb’s life and to his eventual death.
On 14th April 1943, as he was drawing to the end of his seventy-fifth year, Father McNabb was told by his doctor that he had only a short time to live. That same day he wrote to his niece, Sister Mary Magdalen, a Dominican sister, “Deo Gratias! God is asking me to take a journey which everyone must sooner or later take. I have been told that I have a malignant incurable growth in the throat. I can, at most, have weeks to live.” The following day he preached to the Sisters of Mercy. It was Thursday in Passion Week, and, after a few vivid words of reflection concerning the imminence of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Father McNabb said:
“And now dear sisters, I have some very good news for you. This is the last time I shall be speaking to you together in this chapel. You know in these days everyone is being called up [this of course was in the midst of World War II]... I too have been called up!... And for what? To the King of Kings, and that not for the duration but for Life Everlasting! The words of the Psalm, ‘Rejoice at the things that were said to me – with joy I have entered the House of the Lord’, are filling my heart with joy.”
It was to be approximately nine weeks before Father McNabb finally died – and these last two months were as busy a period for him as any that had gone before. He carried on his teaching courses on Aquinas and the Psalms, even offering to start a course on the Angels for as long as he lasted: “I do not know what sort of Angels they will put me amongst, dear children! I am not good enough for the good Angels.” He warned his students that at any time he may have to send them a telegram to say that he was dead.
When the press – Catholic and secular – found out that such a popular figure was about to die they hounded the Dominican Community at St Dominic’s Priory. Father McNabb was determined that his death should be as much a sermon as his life as a Dominican had been. He knew that the last weeks would be difficult. He had been told that he would effectively die slowly of starvation, and would also experience some severe breathing troubles, as the passage of his throat narrowed and finally disappeared. While his strength was still with him he continued to preach and speak across London, marching along its dreary streets in his habit and hob-nailed boots with his heavy ‘McNabb-sack’ over his shoulders. He went to all his choir duties until a few days before his death: although he was able to speak to the end, and his breathing problems were slight, he was not able to eat for about a week, and could not swallow any liquids for three days, before he died.
On Monday 14th June, he collapsed during Prime, on Monday 14th June. Experiencing a slight recovery, he wrote his last letter, again to his niece, Sister Mary Magdalen. The next day he received the Last Rites, following another collapse, and slowly deteriorated until the morning of Thursday 17th June when he summoned Father Prior to his cell (under obedience he was seated on a straight-backed chair – they didn’t dare suggest to him that he should take to his bed!). There, amidst the bare surroundings of a familiar austerity, Father McNabb sang the Nunc Dimittis for the last time, confessed his sins to Father Prior, and renewed his vows. He then became unconscious for half-an-hour, sneezed, and died.
Crowds of people, young and old, rich and poor, but especially old and poor, came to see him, pray for him, and touch his habit as he was laid out in the Lady Chapel at the Priory for three days. The Requiem Mass took place on Monday 21st June: the Church was packed, principally with Catholic luminaries – the streets outside were thronged with the poor from the tenements he had so often visited. As requested, he was buried in a plain deal box, marked with a simple black cross and with his favourite ejaculation from Holy Scripture written upon it in Greek: “Lord, Thou knowest if I love thee.”
The coffin was drawn on an open-backed wagon (an old beer wagon!) to Kensal Green Cemetery to where amidst even more crowded scenes Cardinal Manning had been carried almost half-a-century before. The newspapers were full of stories and details about his last few days, his death and his funeral. Truly, his last sermon, his death, was what reached his greatest audience. As his Prior, Father Bernard Delaney, said at his funeral:
“All that he [Father McNabb] said, all that he did, all that he was, were the expression of his burning love for his Master, Jesus Christ Our Lord. The cause of God was his consuming passion – the glory, the justice, the truth of God. He was a great Friar Preacher, but he was something more – he was a living sermon.”All ages have their vices. In that sense there has never been a truly Golden Age. But even Fr McNabb would have recoiled – dumbstruck, I think – at the grotesque vices that are casually paraded across the capital, for all eyes to see clearly. Gross immodesty in dress; brazen homosexual behaviour; the manifest and squalid impurity of advertisements, of cinema, film and literature; the sexual vulgarity of language (the speech of the working man in particular has never been free of profanity, but the current sexual licence in speech, even from the young, would have appalled even the most robust navvy of Fr McNabb’s day); the extraordinarily immature materialism; the surrender to naked capitalist and commercial banality, and to the culture not just of death but of emetic greed; the casual discourtesy at best and more usually bestial rudeness encouraged by I-pods, mobile phones and the maddening paraphernalia of technological decay; and the grinning, cadaverous, Godless vapidity of the stuff with which the West seduces itself, day by day, and minute by minute, and second by second: all of this would have saddened Fr McNabb to his tearful heart.
We live amongst a declining, decadent, post Christian people, too deracinated and intoxicated with technological advancement and complete licence in matters of physical pleasure to even approach the lowest rungs of pagan dignity. We are not – in all likelihood – their betters in any natural respect. Only supernaturally has it been given us by God’s grace to see where we should aim, and to turn our eyes from the gutter to the stars.
Yet we cannot shun the world, nor must we see it in every respect as our foe. As Fr McNabb wrote:
“We mustn't go out into the world as if the world were our enemy and we have to conquer it. It is like the poor wounded man on the road to Jericho; it is hungry and we want to give it something to eat; thirsty, and we want to give it something to drink; homeless and we want to open the door and give it a lodging, a home, a hearth.”Fr McNabb had no intentions save those of his Father in Heaven, but so multifarious and innumerable are the intentions of Almighty God that each man reflects only a part of them. And those intentions of Almighty God that Fr McNabb reflected were the intentions for which we too should work and pray – for the family, for a sane and Catholic society, for greater love for Our Lord and Our Blessed Lady, for Christian justice for the poor.
Our lives must be like little flames amidst this hurricane of amoral, immoral, madness. So long as we are connected to God’s grace, and we do not sever that connection through Mortal Sin or apostasy, the light that is within us cannot be blown out no matter how wildly the winds rage, no matter how much light flickers and sometimes fades. And we must share that light. When the world is fully dark, even a little light will seem a supernova.
So, why have I called him ‘the Apostle of First Principles’?
We have all, I imagine, argues, controverted from time to time with family members, friends, colleagues, strangers, about matters of Faith. Below each initial disagreement always lies another – and then another still beneath that. We chase these errors back to try and find common ground. A lot of the time we never make it. The point at which our thinking has parted from that of our antagonist is often a long way back in the chain of reasoning. We cannot expect the person with whom we are arguing to have the ability let alone the patience or determination to return to the root, to the source. Nor can we always trace our way back. We have accepted what the Faith is from those with authority to teach us – and often we have ourselves looked no further.
We must learn to try and get back to the root, to the source. “Go to the Book!” Father McNabb used to say – referring to Holy Scripture, to the works of St Thomas, to the proclamations of the Councils of the Church – “...don't just read a book about the Book!”
We must build from the bottom up – return to first principles to make any head-way. Even in the first half of the twentieth century, Father McNabb saw this. He saw it particularly in how Church teaching applies to society, to the pragmatisms of politics and to how economic life could be configured within the natural law and the teaching of Christ and his Church. But he applied this too to the rest of his thinking and writing and preaching and teaching. He knew that those first principles could only be found in Authority, in natural law and in sound metaphysics: not in our own assumptions or particular views and opinions, even when we think them conformable to the Faith.
Father McNabb has much to teach this age, and not just those who are not of the Household of the Faith. He is a challenge to all our assumptions, to all our false knowledge, our false understanding. Do any of us really know as much as we sometimes think we do? Let us return to the source.
I will conclude my talk this evening with a few more words of Fr McNabb’s, and with a prayer of his:
“Some people say, ‘I do not like sermons. I never go to hear a sermon.’ They do not know that these very words are themselves a sermon. They do not realise that every deed done in the sight or hearing of another is a preached sermon. The best or the worst of all sermons is a life led. God made every man and woman an apostle when he made them capable of dwelling with their fellow men and women. The best argument for the Catholic Church is not the words spoken from this pulpit but the lives lived in this Priory and in this parish. We should measure the words by the life, not the life by the words.”
“Bend my stubborn heart, my Master, make my lips truthful. May my prayer be a prayer of truth as well as a prayer of petition. May I desire what I say I desire; and may I desire as first what Thou hast put first, at the head of all our desires – Thy Will, Thy Kingdom, and the hallowing of Thy Name.”Deo gratias! And thank you.
Posted by G at 14:23