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Certainty in an Age of Stupidity by Charles A. Coulombe

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Certainty in an Age of Stupidity

The Grimaces (1823), a 33.3 x 25.4 cm lithograph by Louis Léopold Boilly (1761-1845), located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

If an alien from another planet read the Holy Father’s tacit renunciation of the missionary work of the North American Martyrs and their successors in His Majesty’s North American Dominion, Kamala Harris’ incoherent blatherings, or the Austrian Chancellor’s assurances that “vaccinations make free,” it would be understandable if he thought that the Earth’s leadership class had gone mad. Given the ridiculous and self-contradictory drivel that pours out of the lips of those in charge in Church and State, it would be hard to prove him wrong. Seeing politicians ooze from one side of their mouths that women’s rights must be protected, and from the other that they cannot define what a woman is would be comical, except that these are the people in charge of the course of our lives. 

The sad truth is that large chunks of our political and ecclesiastical leadership have given up the pretence of being about anything beyond the arbitrary exercise of power over their hapless subjects. Hence the stream of near incoherent babble; they no longer feel the need (or perhaps no longer have the ability) to come up with plausible explanations for their mandates. At times, whilst listening to them, one recalls Merlin’s curse in That Hideous Strength: “From them who have despised the Word of God, let the word of Man be taken also.”

While we may all seem doomed to continue down a one-way road to the asylum, there are ways to stay sane even inside insanity. One way is to limit how much insanity one absorbs; much of the flood of shrieking voices comes over the internet, so we can simply limit our exposure. But this is merely a stopgap. One needs interior fortification to navigate the maze of madness, and this fortification can and should range from the silly to the sublime. 

The first thing is to bear in mind that all that one encounters in the human condition falls into two areas. The first encompasses those perennial phenomena—that is to say, endemic to the human condition—and which, like the poor, we shall always have with us. These range from the various sins to their antagonistic virtues, and include the relationship between the sexes, the generations, and all the rest. They may be struggled with, accommodated, compensated for, or what have you, but they can never be ‘fixed’ or ‘cured.’ Their permanence is so definite that one begins to suspect that they are meant to be with us, either as punishment, reward, or incentive to growth. The second area comprises those things in life which really do pertain to this particular time and place. Being rather more limited in scope—though often rooted in—than the perennial ones, there is often more that one can do about them. Discerning the difference between the two helps us to avoid worrying about what cannot be helped, and focusing on what can be.

A supreme method of keeping sane is maintaining a sense of humour. The importance of humor cannot be overemphasized. Having grown up around veterans of the Two World Wars and the Great Depression, I can testify that even gallows humour has its place. But with such an enormous amount of what we individually and collectively encounter being so ridiculous, we need to cultivate the ability to recognise it for the nonsense it is, and to laugh at it. Anger only eats at us; it does the object of anger no harm. But the devil hates being laughed at, and so do evil men in general. Moreover, to quote the Reader’s Digest, “laughter is the best medicine.” Never have we needed such healing more than now.

So far, these are defensive measures for sanity. There are aggressive measures as well. We must actively cultivate within ourselves senses of gratitude, wonder, and awe. In both our natural and built environments us, there is so much beauty—albeit harder to find in some places than others, and always allowing for difference of tastes. The best arts and architecture of all the World’s cultures are our joint legacy and inheritance; if we learn to appreciate them, and to love their makers and the Creator behind those folk of genius, we shall have an endless source of joy. Let us read books, listen to music, watch films of quality; if we can, let us visit museums and art galleries, explore parks and forests, and get out of ourselves. There are always new (to us, anyway) authors and artists to discover, new woods to explore: “In every wood in every spring/There is a different green.” We should try to use our local neighbourhood as though we were tourists, scouting out its every restaurant, its historical, cultural, and natural treasures. For that matter, we should cultivate our own hobbies at home, be they beekeeping, trombone-playing, gardening, or coin collecting.

Another important thing is to observe the festivities of the Calendar Year. Now, in the United States, the real New Year is ‘Back to School’ time in September. This is quickly followed by Halloween (the build-up for which is begun in stores now as early as late August), Veterans’ Day, Thanksgiving (overshadowed in all but food stores by the ‘Holiday’ decorations which emerge immediately after or even before Halloween), Christmas (which modern lore tries to submerge beneath ‘Holiday’), New Year’s, St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras (in some favoured locations), Easter, Memorial Day, and Independence Day’s flags and fireworks.

While for Catholics and others, this is a pale reflexion of the Church Year, each of the secular holidays does have a unique kind of joy to it. Indeed, the conflation of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s into an extended ‘Holiday Season,’ while partly motivated by commercialism on the one hand and a desire by many to conceal Christ’s Nativity on the other, there is, I think, a deeper reason behind our enjoyment of these festivals. Consider the so-called ‘holiday creep,’ where we see the observance of Halloween and Christmas creeping ever earlier; in some case this leads to some stores throughout October having a strange Nightmare Before Christmas feel, with Halloween and Christmas items for sale on adjoining aisles. At the same time, one notices in many places that Christmas lights on houses are staying up ever later, as people (knowingly or not) rediscover the storied Twelve Days of Christmas, and even of the ‘Christmas Season,’ which liturgically extended until Candlemas on February 2. The reason behind the extension on both ends is a desire to keep the “magic of the holidays” going against the ever-increasing dreariness of everyday life. At base, this is a healthy instinct; but a proper observance of the Church Year with its fasts and feasts is the best and healthiest (spiritually and mentally) way to express it.

Thus far, we have looked primarily at things for the individual and/or his family to pursue. But both individuals and families are part of a greater whole. We all need a larger community. Depending upon our time and interests, this can be done in any number of ways. Genealogical, hereditary, fraternal, literary, service, and other such associations and organisations abound on the local, state, national, and international levels. Getting involved in such to the best of our abilities helps pull us out of ourselves; being shut into oneself being an important source of misery. Moreover, depending on the nature of the group, people with differing views may have more pleasant encounters than Twitter affords. Their discovery that you are in fact a human being may alter their attitude; even as your similar discovery of their humanness may help you communicate your views in a more effective way to those who do not hold them.

Local involvement is an important thing. There are innumerable ‘Friends of’ groups that attempt to assist neighbourhood libraries, historical houses, parks, or whatever it may be in continuing to function. Not only are such bodies the building blocks of local patriotism, but they also often do things that are simply worthwhile in doing. Also, keep an eye on your Chamber of Commerce or Jaycees, because local ethnic and other festivals can be rewarding and enjoyable, and ‘Shop Local Saturdays’ can benefit your town’s economy far more than money spent in national or international retail stores.

Now it might be noted at this point that all of the things we have looked at attempt to connect with what is good, decent, and above all permanent in the human experience. But, of course—with the partial exception of observing the Church Year—it is all primarily this-worldly. While these things can and will hold off the howling madness of to-day’s world for long periods, they cannot, alone and of themselves, permanently satisfy. For such satisfaction we must look beyond the circles of this world to the transcendent effulgence beyond. Of course, this is impossible for those who do not believe in anything other than what they see this side of the grave, which—alas—is where, for them, their story must end. This is what many who dictate our society’s tone believe, and for these, what our masters give us is all they are able to receive.

But for those who do dare to believe in more than this world, things are very different. As a Catholic myself, my observations from this point on will make sense primarily to my co-religionists, to the Orthodox, and to such Anglo-Catholics and ‘High Church’ Protestants as believe in the Sacraments in any way approaching the Catholic manner of doing so. For others, they shall have to apply whatever their religion sees as a gateway to the Transcendent. 

Above and beyond all the wrack, ruin, and rot of the world we see around us, the Sacraments and the various liturgies with which they are embodied bring us directly into contact with God Himself in various ways. Indeed, it is this sense of direct connexion which is in the firing line of many who hold power in the Catholic Church to-day. But let us put them out of our minds for the moment as mere inconveniences to be dealt with, like interfering government officials or self-delusory academics. The Traditional Latin Rite, the Eastern Catholic Liturgies, the Mass of the Anglican Ordinariates, and indeed, the Novus Ordo when offered by reverent and believing priests, all these liturgies bring us the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Eucharist, the True Grail: Christ Himself, in His Body and Blood, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty unending. As Tolkien put it,

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament… There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.

Nor does Christ await us only at His actual daily descent upon the Altar, but wherever and whenever He is reserved or exposed for Adoration. It was this knowledge and this practise that gave Saints and Heroes—from the Apostles to Bl. Emperor Karl and Servant of God Fr. Vincent R. Capodanno to countless of the unknown thousands struggling around the world to-day—the strength and fortitude they required and require to do great things for God and their Neighbour.

But lest it be thought that with this we are simply preparing for the Heaven in which all of this strife and horror shall seem a mere bad dream, keeping one’s eye on the Transcendent will transform all the other things we have been describing from mere helps to sanity to lesser avenues of Grace. Whether listening to a beloved song, drinking with close friends, or assisting at High Mass, we shall experience what Tolkien’s Sam saw in Mordor: 

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

Charles A. Coulombe is a columnist for the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy (TAN Books, 2020). It was reviewed in our Winter 2020/2021 print edition. He is also a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative.