My years as a voyeur of holiness brought me into contact with true believers, and taught me that faith transfigures everything it touches, and raises the world to God.
To believe as much is not yet to believe, but it is to know your insufficiency. And that knowledge has much in common with faith.
Two people stand out among the many who have illuminated for me the path to Rome, a path that I never took. One enjoyed wealth and social standing. The other lived at the bottom of society, impoverished, oppressed, but serene. The first was Monsignor Gilbey, who had been Catholic chaplain in Cambridge during my undergraduate days.
Gilbey was descended on his mother's side from Spanish sherry merchants and on his fathers from the Gilbeys who made their fortune from claret and their name from gin. Both his money and his faith were inherited, and both fed his posture of self-conscious anachronism. Following the reforms of Vatican II, he had successfully petitioned to be allowed to celebrate the Tridentine Latin Mass. He had refused to admit women undergraduates to Fisher House, the Roman Catholic Chaplaincy attached to Cambridge University, and as a result had been forced to resign.
Meanwhile he had refurbished the chaplaincy in the style of a counter-reformation shrine, had searched assiduously for undergraduates whom he could attract into the faith, and had continued to live like a confessor to some Spanish monarch, while dressing in the old accoutrements of an Anglican clergyman, with a wide-rimmed clerical hat, stockings held at the knee with gaiters, and a black frock coat over a silk waistcoat and purple shirt.
He was an intimate of the old recusant nobility, had been brought up in a country house (Mark Hall in Essex, burned down in the last war by land girls, and now the site of a sprawling suburb), and went from Cambridge to haunt other such houses and the clubs of London. He even lived in a club, the Travellers, where he had the confidence of the largely Catholic staff, most of them Spanish and Italian immigrants whose confessions he heard and whose penitence he later enjoyed when they waited at his own special table.
To many who did not know him he was a snob, a bon viveur, and a corrupter of the youth, whose interest in young men was only nominally spiritual. To those who knew him he was a genuinely holy man, who attempted to synthesize the worldly competence of the gentleman, the sacrificial ardours of the saint, and the contemplative invulnerability of the monk in a single shining ideal, and to make that ideal into an example and a reality. Accused, like Socrates, of corrupting the youth, he might have replied, as Socrates did, that young men of the richer classes, who have the most leisure, come about me of their own accord; they like to hear the pretenders examined, and they often imitate me, and proceed to examine others.
Some of the young men who gathered around Monsignor Gilbey were converts, some were old members of the Catholic upper class, some were fellow-travellers charmed by his prelatic style. All of them admired the Catholic absolutes, which he imparted with such assuredness that his catechism, delivered in weekly lessons to a recent Cambridge undergraduate, was tape-recorded and printed verbatim as a book. We Believe is a succinct statement of the theological and moral doctrine of the Church, conveying timeless truth in serene and flowing prose. It has that unique combination of Chestertonian common sense, ardent faith and sparkling humour that characterized Gilbey's conversation, and is informed throughout by a sense of the beauty, as well as the truth, of the Catholic doctrine.
Gilbey spent much of his life in prayer, rising early to attend mass at the Oratory, and spending hours on his knees in his own private chapel. Officially speaking this chapel did not exist, since it was situated in the Travellers Club, whose members would never have tolerated Popish hocus-pocus in the heart of their privileged territory. But the Club Secretary, Robin McDouall, was a member of the circle of slightly epicene clubmen who had formed the core of London's post-war elite.
Gilbey also moved in that circle, as he moved in every circle where his peculiar message could be heard. McDouall understood that, while many people might want a private chapel in their club, Monsignor Gilbey needed one. For it was an important feature of the Travellers, and one much appreciated by its younger members, that it was Gilbey's home. His being there in the corner of the smoking room, peering over his reading glasses at every member who came or went, his eyes sparkling with the unfeigned enjoyment of life that, strange though it may seem, was his part of holiness, contributed to the club's distinctive atmosphere. Stepping in off Pall Mall was like falling out of modern London into a quiet bodega in pre-Republican Spain, where an old priest is taking sherry after blessing the marquis who lies dying upstairs.
Two people stand out among the many who have illuminated for me the path to Rome a path that I never took.
Once Gilbey took me to visit his sanctuary: a converted boxroom in the tangled solar plexus of Sir Charles Barrys building. You approached it by a narrow back staircase, which pushed its way through a tangle of thrumming pipes, tubes and wires reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. At a certain point you came across a cupboard door without a landing, and entering you found yourself transported into the world of Philip II of Spain. The room was hidden from public view and enjoyed a strange inward silence, disturbed only by the occasional clanking of an old-fashioned lift shaft. There was a tiny window, looking across a dark courtyard towards the back of the Athenaeum. Illumination came from dim electric light bulbs under parchment shades. On the altar were candles in silver candlesticks, which Monsignor Gilbey lit with a box of matches kept in a polished silver case. A single row of chairs and prie-dieus, enough for the priest and his guests, occupied the centre of the cupboard. The rest of the space was taken up by a tall Charles II armchair with a prie-dieu in front of it.
I recall a Madonna with flowing robes and downturned eyes, and a crucifix attached to the wall above the altar, bearing the long polished limbs of an El Greco-like Christ in ivory. Fragments of liturgical furniture had been assembled against the walls, with a stoup for holy water. All these odds and ends had been carefully fitted together in the tiny space to create the effect of an ancient and much-visited sanctuary, and although the Monsignor was careful not to burn incense lest his secret be known, there was nevertheless that indescribable smell that I knew from peasant churches, the smell of objects incessantly lapped by prayer.
And, of course, I asked myself how these things had got there: from what churches had they been stolen, and what communities had been brought down to earth to satisfy the Monsignor's need for everlastingness? Unlike those cruets, the memory of which still troubled me and which probably adorned some dressing table in the Paris suburbs, carefully filled each week with crème hydratante by Lancôme, these objects had come to rest in another holy place, unaltered, and yet un-altared, deprived of the communities whose spirit they had breathed. Was this stealing? And even if not, was it rightly done?
Those questions were answered for me only much later, after the Monsignor's death, when I happened to speak to one of his flock about Jock's music room, as Gilbey called it jock being the old Scottish bedmaker who had occupied the cupboard before him, and who had used it to listen to his collection of music-hall classics. I learned that Gilbey had obtained permission from Cardinal Heenan not only to say the Tridentine Mass, but also to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in this very cupboard. He had furnished the place with family heirlooms, some rescued from Mark Hall. And the cupboard was a fully functioning chapel, where Gilbey would, once a week, serve mass at the altar to a packed congregation of 12.
Gilbey left his ecclesiastical fittings and vestments to the Oratory, and after his death the chapel was dismantled and its contents transferred. Supporting the starched linen cloth that composed the altar was an old chest of drawers from the nursery at Mark Hall, the drawers of which were filled with the stuffed animals, notably elephants, with which the Monsignor had played as a child. Like every aspect of Gilbeys life, the chapel had been both an invocation of eternity and a link to the vanished home that he had loved. He had never lost his innocence, and carried into the adult world that sense of being wholly protected which is the privilege of childhood. His love of ritual was the other side of his intense devotion to the past the past of England, the past of the Catholic Church, and his own past, which had been filled with so much innocent joy. Through him I came to see that conservatism of Gilbey's kind is quite unlike the fashionable social doctrines of our day, all of which are founded, in the end, on anger or resentment. Conservatism is founded on love: love of what has been good to you, and forgiveness of what has not.
On 1 August 1985, I had dinner with Alfred Gilbey in the Oxford and Cambridge Club (the kitchens in the Travellers being closed for the summer holiday). Here is what I wrote in my diary:
How strange the vision of his face as he talks, his eyes fast shut and ringed with folded flesh, his mouth closed and half smiling, his speech barely audible, as though addressed to another, invisible and immaterial presence. His soft slabs of cheek are encased by two symmetrical squares of wrinkles, which seem like deep-cut mouldings around monumental panels of marble. And the voice so rapid and so quiet, glancing off the surface of a thousand subjects, each of which seems to reach out and touch it, only to be left trembling and unfulfilled. He referred to a recent letter of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales to the Pope in Rome, lamenting the decline in their congregations, and calling for a teaching and a practice that would be more relevant to the needs of today.
What an absurd demand to be relevant! Was Christ relevant? To be relevant means to accept the standard of the world in which you are, and therefore to cease to aspire beyond it. Relevance is not merely an un-Christian but an anti-Christian ambition.
What an absurd demand to be relevant! Was Christ relevant? To be relevant means to accept the standard of the world in which you are, and therefore to cease to aspire beyond it. Relevance is not merely an un-Christian but an anti-Christian ambition.
It is hard to fault that argument; but also difficult to welcome its corollary, which is the vision of a Church enduring forever, but acknowledged only by a few old priests living in spiritual catacombs of their own devising, celebrating the rituals of a Church so truly universal that it has no living members. But that was another of his sayings, that all the best people are dead. Alfred went on to add that Christian charity is now entirely misunderstood, as a kind of collective effort to improve the world.
We are not asked to undo the work of creation or to rectify the Fall. The duty of a Christian is not to leave this world a better place. His duty is to leave this world a better man.
He was dismissive of academic historians, saying that any historian who makes history readable is suspect to those who can't. And he had some harsh words to say concerning the modern approach to education, as an education for life; such cliches awaken the old recusant instinct, which tells him that people might be entirely mistaken, especially in those beliefs that they take to be self-evident. True education, he retorted, is not for life, but for death. His aphoristic way of talking gains much from his soft, liquid voice, barely audible yet resounding nevertheless in the moral echo-chamber that invisibly surrounds him. He recounted anecdotes of his friend Archbishop David Mathew, who had described Pius XI as a great believer in moderate rewards, of his Cambridge days and of his long-standing connection with Trinity. He recalled an after-dinner silence in the combination room:
A to B: How is your wife?
B (slowly turning, with raised eyebrows): Compared to whom?
This dialogue neatly encapsulates the relation between the sexes, as Alfred conceives it.
He also told with great feeling an apocryphal story concerning the composition of Leonardo's Last Supper, which, in this version of events, the artist composed over many decades, constantly searching the streets and alley-ways of Milan for the ideal types upon whom to model the twelve apostles, and having begun with the beautiful and innocent face of a young man whose expression seemed to capture all the grace, dignity and tender compassion of Jesus.
After years of labour the apostles had all been assembled, representing in their carefully differentiated expressions the fine gradations of hope, resolution, weakness and despair. Only one remained and that was Judas, whose baseness no citizen of Milan seemed to wear on his face, and to whom Leonardo began to despair of giving the absolute lifelikeness that was vital to his conception. At last, in a mean alleyway, a dark figure, engaged in some whispered transaction, caught the painter's eye. Recognizing in those fear-filled, treacherous glances the lineaments of Judas, Leonardo enticed him to the cenaculo with a gift of silver.
The figure, shifty, suspicious and huddled into himself, is pushed into a corner and told to sit. Looking up at last, and recognizing the painter and the tools of his trade, he says, You have painted me before.
Have I? asks the startled painter. When?
Oh, a long time ago.
And for what purpose?
Judas turns to the nearly completed fresco that is taking shape above them.
There I am, he says, and points to Christ.
The story is characteristic. Although Alfred's anecdotes range far and wide, and contain a large streak of satire and even flippancy, there is a single point of reference in all of them, and that is not Catholicism or the Church or Christian civilization or any socially constructed thing, but Christ himself, in all his mystical completeness and simplicity.
This intense personal relation to the Redeemer rescued Monsignor Gilbey from worldliness, made him stand out like a visiting angel wherever he appeared, and in a strange way justified his impeccable turnout and polished manners. The maxim that cleanliness is next to godliness is often ridiculed, since it suggests the religion of the nursery, by which Nanny calls God to her aid. But the maxim is ridiculed only by those who have not seen what cleanliness and godliness have in common, namely, the maintenance of the human body as the soul's earthly vessel and the sensory image of God. Hence it is not only in Protestant countries that the maxim is repeated; nor is it confined to Christian communities. The Muslims will tell you that an-nazaafa min al-imaan, cleanliness is like faith.
Monsignor Gilbey was not so much a snob as a believer in hierarchy. He was fond of quoting Ulysses' great speech from Troilus and Cressida, in which Shakespeare gives voice to his own highly conservative vision:
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark! What discord follows: each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The generals disdained
By him one step below, he by the next,
That next by him beneath; so every step,
Exampled by the first place that is sick
Of his superior, grows to an envious fever
Of pale and bloodless emulation.
We need hierarchy in our customs, Gilbey believed, because we need order in our souls. And even if human hierarchies are artificial things, tainted by the fallen condition of those who built them, it is better to accept them than to fall prey to the envious fever of pale and bloodless emulation, which some call the pursuit of equality and others the Devil's work.
Gilbey would often talk with regret of the changes wrought in the Church by Vatican II, but never did he give voice to an uncharitable thought towards those who had instigated them, nor challenge the Church's authority. On the contrary; he believed the Church to be the continuity of the Incarnation, to earthly fluctuations and weaknesses like any other incarnate person. In an egalitarian age the Church too will be egalitarian, and even if this is in some measure a departure from the Holy Spirit's aims for her, it does not detract from her authority, which is God-given and absolute. He as a priest had a duty to obey, and it was another facet of his charmed existence that he could obey without changing the smallest detail of his intensely ritualized life.
We are not asked to undo the work of creation or to rectify the Fall. The duty of a Christian is not to leave this world a better place. His duty is to leave this world a better man.
And even if you take his sartorial perfectionism, his clubbability, his Beerbohmian zest for social nuances, his lifelong addiction to hunting with hounds, his antiquarianism and his love of the old England of country house and Trollopian intrigue even if you take all this and, discounting his constant visits among the poor, the sick and the dying, and the universal reach of his friendship, make it add up in some way to snobbery, then that only shows that snobbery can be close to sanctity. This strange thought occurs to me as a way of understanding the intense spirituality of which his social manner was, in the last analysis, a sign. Gilbey's nurturing of hierarchies resembled that of Proust; it was an alchemical process, whereby the base metal of human appetite was changed into the gold of style. Or, to alter the simile, it was like a stained-glass window, which fractures the light of life into its component colours, and stains each fragment with some entrancing story.
Something like that is true even of snobbery in its lower forms, as Proust brilliantly shows. Mme Verdurin's snobbery is a kind of narrative, told by the snob herself, in which her own life is raised to a higher level, and in which the effort of being distinguished is rewarded with some intangible version of the fairy-tale prince. And this habit of story-telling resembles that infinitely more graceful habit which was Gilbeys, and which gave heart to his religion. In his social manner he showed that faith is an invitation to re-work the human body as a sacred vessel, to transubstantiate ourselves in thought, from appetite to will, and from flesh to spirit.
It was not Monsignor Gilbey who showed me what this narrative of transubstantiation really means, however. Gilbey resembled Proust's Swann: moving in many spheres, but carefully holding each apart from its neighbour, lest they contaminate each other with alien forms of life. And in each of his spheres he was, like Swann, utterly attentive, utterly sensitive to the needs, the aspirations and the norms that prevailed there. Gilbey found much comfort in Christ's words, in my Father's house there are many mansions; for clearly he would be at home only where the furnishings, the catering and the company matched those of the travellers. He is unlikely to meet, in that section of the celestial city to which he aspired, the other holy person in my life, although she, like Alfred Gilbey, owed her holiness to a personal connection with Christ.
Barbara lived with her mother in a back street on the outskirts of Gdansk. When I met her she was 26 years old, though still a student in the Catholic University, the only independent university in the Communist bloc, situated on the outskirts of the crumbling town of Lublin in South East Poland.
I had organized a short summer school at Kazimierz Dolny, where the Catholic University had a hostel, and had brought with me students and a colleague from Oxford. Such gatherings were difficult for me because I was being followed. But they were also exciting, since they were an opportunity to speak freely about the matters that most concerned me, to young people who were naturally disposed to sympathize with what I said.
In Poland, an occupied country with a censored press, there was, comparatively speaking, complete freedom of speech, and the Catholic University of Lublin was the only university I knew where a right-winger could speak openly in defence of his views. In British universities right-wingers risked intimidation from students and ostracism from colleagues. In Poland they were an accepted part of academic life.
The Oxford students would come to Poland with left-liberal politics, agnostic beliefs, pleasure-loving ways and a habit of sneering at things old and venerable. All of them would leave in a thoughtful frame of mind, sceptical of political utopias, respectful of religion and with a new appreciation of the orderly soul and its destiny.
And, in the company of their Polish peers, British students would change almost overnight, responding not merely to the evident oppression and poverty, but to the gentle, courteous and pious ways of their new companions. Yet more agreeable than bringing modern ideas and scholarship to the Poles was the sight of the old tried ways of Europe, thriving in the face of oppression, and awakening in the young British visitor the deep-down awareness of the Christian way of life. The Oxford students would come to Poland with left-liberal politics, agnostic beliefs, pleasure-loving ways and a habit of sneering at things old and venerable. All of them would leave in a thoughtful frame of mind, sceptical of political utopias, respectful of religion and with a new appreciation of the orderly soul and its destiny.
I differed from the students only in my starting point. I too was moved, refreshed and also troubled by those orderly souls that I encountered, whether in the monastery where I sometimes stayed in Lublin, or in the student hostel at Kazimierz Dolny. Most orderly of all was Barbara, and her beautiful lop-sided face with its high Slavonic cheekbones, dark eyes and left-handed smile gave the impression, when she looked at me, which she did often, that she opened a door into my soul and stood quietly inside it. She was a messenger from another realm, an angel in the original meaning of the term, and she entered my life like an annunciation.
Barbara, Basia (pronounced Basha) in the diminutive, was the oldest of the students and also their leader, since she was reading for a higher degree. Officially her subject was philosophy but I could not make head or tail of it. The professor of philosophy at Lublin, Father Krapiec (pronounced Krompiets), had devised one of those arcane syntheses of Thomism and phenomenology that enable its adepts to speak incessantly about Being, Becoming, and Eternity while drawing ever larger circles on a blackboard, to the credulous admiration of students who might otherwise have wondered what purpose philosophy might serve. The English students who came to Kazimierz had been taught analytical philosophy, from which they had retained only one certain axiom, which is that philosophy serves no purpose whatsoever.
It is difficult, in retrospect, to determine which school of thought is to be preferred, as an influence on young minds. Nevertheless, the fact remained that Basia's intellectual interests were almost entirely opaque to me. She had an acute mind, and later we used to argue about Wittgenstein in a way that always taught me something. But it was not her mind that intrigued me nor even her body, beautiful though it was. I was drawn to Basia by her soul.
The word soul is now rarely used by those academics who call themselves philosophers, most of whom see it as heralding some kind of threat to their materialist assumptions, not to speak of their way of life. But it is a useful, indeed a necessary word, since it reminds us of what we are for each other. And what we are for each other is a large part of what we are. The soul is what one person elicits in another, when he sees the other as a free, self-conscious, self-governed and answerable being. This is the true mystery of the Annunciation, as Simone Martini painted it: a simple woman surprised by an angel, who addresses her I to I.
On my second day in Kazimierz I met Basia's eyes as I spoke from the podium, and saw that she was judging, debating, assessing and forgiving me. Her queer smile, static and pinched on one side and soft, almost maternal, on the other, conveyed an impression of inner absorption and indifference to the world. This impression was enhanced by her deep brown, wide-set eyes, by the clear unpainted flesh of her cheeks and by her hair, cut short against sea-shell ears. This was not a face that had been shaped by lust or greed or social climbing. Nor, for all its youthfulness, was it addicted to the things of youth. It had an inner serenity which was both childlike in its innocence, and also a title to adulthood, like a religious vow.
Of course Basia was a creature of flesh and blood. A spark had been ignited between us, and it could be fanned at any moment to a flame. But her look, which candidly displayed this possibility, also retreated from it. When the lecture was over she rose quickly and went outside.
The hostel was a kind of log cabin in the woods, reached by a winding road from which you could see the two Renaissance churches of Kazimierz, rising amid trees over the old town square. The woods had the uncared-for air of Communist Europe, belonging to no one, closed to everyone, trampled by anyone, a place with no relation to mankind. Trees, shrubs, ferns, wildflowers, animals all were as if nameless, neither wild nor tame, neither owned nor unowned, neither part of the human world nor wholly apart from it. The red squirrels in the branches quivered in a peculiar limbo, as though waiting for some sign that would not come; their existence had been half forbidden, half permitted, and they trembled on the edge of things. The people whom I met in places like this knew me by the code name Squirrel, Wiewiorka, a tribute to my red hair. I too existed on the edge of things, my name in abeyance, my normal unheroic life concealed.
But it was no underground activist, no banned writer, no samizdat publisher, no chivalrous knight of a forbidden order who waited for me in the woods at Kazimierz. It was Basia, who stepped quietly across my path and looked with a disarming seriousness into my eyes.
You have no ring on finger, she said. But in West is freedom, and rings make chains. So I ask a question.
I took her hand, which was small, like a child's.
Someone waits for you? You get down from that airplane and maybe a face with smiles and a flower comes out of a crowd?
No flower, I responded, truthfully.
So, just a face. She detached her hand. This is pity because already you are a little bit in my heart.
I received this news in unastonished silence. All at once and with no two ways about it, I was being told to put my life in order. I reviewed the chaos that had dogged me from year to year since my divorce, and to which I had never yet confessed.
Well yes, she said, you say nothing. It is not for a woman to tell feelings; woman must hide otherwise she is cheap. But you come here for truth I think. So it is much worse than I tell. I love you. I want to be yours. And it is impossible. This is God's work for me. To how do you say come over my love?
Yes, overcome, she said with a self-deprecating laugh.
I rehearsed the reasons for thinking that no other course was possible. They were like the pages of a book that had become unbound, fallen into a chaos of non sequiturs. Somehow I hoped that she would take them, assemble them in another order, and show me that the book of my life made sense. But she merely nodded, watching me with a placid smile. I even referred to my marriage, to the divorce and the pain that had followed though I did not say, as I should have said, that the marriage was stolen from her church. And this leaf too remained where I had placed it, accidentally on top of the pile.
I learned that the order in her soul was not innate but acquired, and acquired by swimming constantly against the current of sensual desire.
But then Basia was young, and her first need was to confess. I learned that the order in her soul was not innate but acquired, and acquired by swimming constantly against the current of sensual desire. She had visited England as an au pair to a Pakistani family, had been seduced by the husband, and had come back to Poland with his baby inside her. She had lived thereafter in the full consciousness of her body, knowing that it must be ruled and guided.
She confessed to her unchastities with chaste and reverent words. And she brought home to me, then and subsequently, what is perhaps the most important truth conveyed by religion, and one that Monsignor Gilbey, incidentally, had built into the foundations of his life, the truth that sex is either consecration or desecration, with no neutral territory between, and that nothing matters more than the customs, ceremonies and rites with which we lift the body above its material need and reshape it as soul. In so far as this thought survives in our modernist culture, it is in some garbled version of the panegyrics of D. H. Lawrence. Basia phrased it in the pure, simple, liturgical language of her church, and showed through her emotion that she had re-made herself, so as one day to give herself entirely. Perhaps she should have been a nun; but it was too late for that. Now her first thought was to encounter the temptation that I presented, not to flee from it, but to vanquish it. For the crazy idea had also come into her head that she could help me to salvation.
Surely there is no hope of that, I said.
Yes, I had this thought once that there is no hope, that this salvation is a nonsense. And almost I committed a suicide. I was such a small shrinked person. But He did not accept. He hunted me, He found me, He was there in dark corner where I go to hide. And now you see, He gives me you for a rescue.
This rescue took on a strange significance over the months that followed: it was to be a rescue not of her only, but of me too. Together we were to go in search of peace, and we would find it, since God wanted only this for us. Basia's letters told an extraordinary story of her continual conversation with God. Every little detail of her life entered this conversation and was raised by it to a higher level, irradiated there by the light of her faith. She described her life as though it were a private song of praise: whether queuing for food, singing to her daughter, praying in church, studying logic, reading the poets, arguing, carousing or dancing with her friends, wandering in the deserted calm of the Polish countryside, learning the names of birds and flowers, she rejoiced. And she took me always with her in her thoughts, testing me against these things, and asking God to approve both me and her and to show us that we, like the world, were blessed.
After a while I could read Polish well enough for her to write to me in her native language, in which she expressed herself with great economy and liveliness, so that all the characters in her surroundings became real to me, and part of my experience. She observed her world with the eye of religion, seeing in everything the sign of God's creative power and the call to free obedience. Hers was a simple, humble, priest-haunted life, and yet it was lived more intensely and more completely than mine. It was wholly natural to her to believe that fulfilment and renunciation coincide, and that a carnal love could be transcended, as the priestess Diotima revealed to Socrates, so as to rescue both lover and beloved from the dross of this world.
For this reason our few brief meetings were troubled and painful. Without chastity there was no sense to our relationship. But chastity was hard, like an examination for which we were always insufficiently prepared. It was thanks to her that we got through these times undamaged, she constantly aiming her thoughts and emotions not beyond this world, but to the divine light that inhabits it. To her there was no mystery in the world, except the mysterium iniquitatis, as she quaintly described it. Her pure heart saw clearly into everything, and her vision was clouded only when tempted to sin.
Everything that occurred in those last years of communism had a peculiar urgency. The communists had justified themselves as the servants of history, the midwives who would ease the birth of a new order that was in any case inevitable. In every place where they had achieved power they had released what was lowest in human nature, rejoicing in destruction and despising every loyalty that was not motivated by cynical calculation. In every communist country you were presented with a vision of chaos. It was as though a great tide flowed through the sewers, into which the people were being thrust by the armed insentient guardians of an order whose main aim was to make people unnecessary, an order in which, as Marx and Engels rightly prophesied, the government of men would give way to the administration of things.
In these circumstances you became acutely aware of the fact that law, government and justice are temporary arrangements, achieved only by individual sacrifice and destined to be swept away by the self-renewing chaos that the communists had dignified by the name of Progress, but which was revealed in all its nothingness as sin. In those orderly souls who stood upright in the flow of lies you saw how civilizations survive. They were like organisms growing in a polluted habitat, retaining in embryo all the beauty and completion to which they never cease to tend. And their effort was of a piece with that labour of the soul described to Socrates by Diotima, and which marked Basia's every gesture towards me: the effort of erotic love. The erotic and the personal belong together: they are temples built above the roar of animal life, into which we scramble in desperation from the flood. Here we find refuge, are idealized and made whole. But only by our own work are these temples constructed, and when the work is neglected, chaos supervenes. In those communist backwaters the contests between person and animal, eros and sex, law and calculation, religion and appetite, were felt as one single contest, and every word, every gesture fed the aims of one or other protagonist in a fight to the death.
Once I went to see Basia in Gdansk. Her mother and daughter were away, and we had a day together undisturbed. It happened to be the anniversary of her grandfather's death, and because he had meant much to her, she had planned to tend his grave. We walked from her ugly street to a park, a place with the ashen quality of the woods near Kazimierz. Martial law was no longer in force; nevertheless, the people were tense, angry, and many had found refuge in drunkenness. We picked one man up from the street where he had fallen and stowed him on a bench beside the park. Turning as we entered the tattered copse, we saw him rise to his feet and fall full length again in the roadway.
As we walked, Basia spoke easily and quietly of communism, which she saw as the Devil's work, a swindle, horn of the father of lies, but no different in essence from all other attempts, both great and small, both public and private, to live a lie. She was not an activist, since this too, she believed, could lead a person into lies, by placing a cause and a project more prominently in the scheme of things than personal feeling. She recited Norwid's Ode to Tenderness (czulosc), and spoke eloquently of Kant's categorical imperative, by which decent atheists try to live. Kant's Practical Reason, she said, is a God-shaped hole in the heart of his philosophy. There can be no motive for pursuing truth in this abstract empty praise of it: truth must be incarnate in a person, and that person is Christ, who calls us to obedience through love. These thoughts were delivered, not as a sermon, but as the fruit of her experience, and of the daily attempt, to which her every gesture bore witness, to be something higher and purer than she might have been were she to compromise with the surrounding nothingness.
Perhaps it is true that we make God in our own image, I thought; but still, the image redeems us, since it makes us objects of a higher love. Working to create that image, we re-create ourselves. Nietzsche's Ubermensch, the higher man who would replace the old ideals of Christian morality (the slave-morality, as he called it), was, for Basia, mere blasphemy. We can become higher than our nature, she said, only by directing our eyes to the man who redeemed us, and who called us to imitate his life. Take away redemption and we are lower than the brutes. But this, she added, can be known only through love, and not through Reason.
We had reached the gate of the cemetery, where Basia bought flowers from an old woman who ran a stall there, and where she asked me to wait, since she wanted to be alone with her grandfather. I sat by the crumbling stucco wall, watching the people come and go with their flowers.
All over communist Europe the cemeteries had been vandalized, since the communists had destroyed the institutions, customs and offices that might have protected them. What place, after all, had the dead, in the great project conceived in the brain of Lenin? In this, as in so many things, Poland was the exception. Indeed, Polish cemeteries were the only places in the landscape that were properly settled and properly owned.
The people seemed cheerful, busying themselves with the needs of their dead as though attending to children. In a religious community people can accept the death of their loved ones because they can continue to care for them. Private grief is relieved through public mourning, and the daily routines of piety domesticate the dead and bring them back to us. All the best people are dead, said Monsignor Gilbey. The remark would have come as no surprise to Basia. And I reflected on the extraordinary girl who had opened this door on my life, and who stood in a light whose source was hidden from me, but which conveyed an almost tangible forgiveness.
A face appeared that did not belong in this place of reconciliation. It was that of the gritty-featured young man with jug-handle ears whom I had noticed at the airport, and who had attracted my attention by doing his utmost not to attract my attention. He walked quickly through the gate and into the cemetery, looking straight ahead like a parading soldier. Basia reappeared and I mentioned that he was following me.
He is your alter ego, she said.
But perhaps I shall cause you troubles.
Those troubles are not real troubles, she replied. Besides, you are not such dangerous man. For me yes. For them no.
We discussed the situation in Poland. Father Popieluszko had recently been murdered by the secret police, and Basia, like most Poles, saw him as a saint and a martyr. Nevertheless, she believed that the queues, shortages, privations, and the indignities of daily life under communism were so many opportunities for inner freedom. It was necessary to resist, of course; but the real fight was within you, to overcome the spirit of selfish calculation. The important thing, she said, was not to improve the world, but to improve yourself. That Basia, living in poverty in her communist prison, should repeat the words of Monsignor Gilbey in his London club, testified to the reality of the Church, as a unified spiritual entity, a corporate person whose members are, in St Paul's words, members in Christ.
Thinking on this I discovered an intellectual question that has since occupied many of my waking hours. You could not understand either Alfred or Basia if you disbelieved in corporate persons. Both lived in constant and fruitful communication with the person they called Holy Mother Church, whom they believed to be animated by the Holy Spirit, and whom they loved with a fervour that surpassed their most ardent earthly attachment. And in Basia's case this love fortified her against a political system that denied the corporate person, for just the reason that it denied the individual, namely because it hated freedom, judgement and accountability in all their God-given forms.
The Communist Party, which controlled everything, could be blamed for nothing. It was impossible to sue it in a court of law; it had neither legal personality nor moral responsibility; it held its assets in secret and was never called upon to account for them, even to its members. Not only did the Party refuse to be a person: it stormed through society in the desolate post-war years extinguishing the light of personality wherever the flame still flickered. Schools, universities, unions, clubs, orchestras all were either closed down or conscripted. Charities were outlawed, and autonomous institutions taken over, their assets confiscated and their leadership often jailed. The Catholic Church in Poland and the Catholic University of Lublin were the sole exceptions: elsewhere even the churches had been penetrated, their priesthood terrorized, and their assets seized.
Both lived in constant and fruitful communication with the person they called Holy Mother Church, whom they believed to be animated by the Holy Spirit, and whom they loved with a fervour that surpassed their most ardent earthly attachment.
The absence of corporate personality is one explanation for the haunting moral void of the communist countries: human society had been atomized, and its members surrounded by impregnable walls of suspicion which only membership, of the kind invoked by St Paul, could have overcome. And since membership was outlawed, suspicion reigned supreme. It dawned on me that conservatism is rooted in the belief that corporate persons are real, that we owe them a debt of allegiance, and that they contain the order, the rule-guidedness and the accountability before a higher judge that governed both Alfred's punctilious routines and Basia's tender glances.
Basia entered no further into my life, but stood at the door she had opened, keeping silent vigil. I wrote to confess that I had stolen my marriage from her Church so causing her pain and prayer in equal proportions, as she came to terms with the fact that the obstacles to marrying me were not just human but divine. But she continued to stand where God, she thought, had placed her, a benevolent presence whose care I could never reward. For Basia there was no such thing as a wasted life, since life was only a prelude. Her patient waiting for me ceased to be a thing of earth and time and retreated into eternity, like a mother withdrawing from her grown-up child, the better to watch over him.
I tried to make sense of her in secular, even dismissive ways. What to me seemed like holiness might appear, from another perspective that for the sake of experiment I would strive to adopt, as suffocating piety. Her purity could be rephrased in Freudian terms as a kind of aggression. I could even imagine that this girl, who put aside all interest and calculation, was really prey to the most cunning form of calculation, and that I myself was the target. And I recalled the remark of La Rochefoucauld, that interest takes many forms, including that of disinterest. For there was something that I did not like about this unruffled, observing, forgiving angel, who stood so immovably on the threshold of my inner self.
And then, a year later, I discovered the concept that I needed to describe her, and it showed to me how immeasurably superior she was to me, in thought and word and deed, and how much she had been prepared, was still prepared, to suffer. It was an ordinary winter's day in Lebanon. Shells were falling everywhere in the Christian enclave around Beirut, which still held firm, however, against the Syrian army. Elsewhere, in the Shouf, in the Beqaa, in the south and north of the country, the Christian communities had been driven from their homes, their churches destroyed, their holy icons smashed or stolen.
That morning I went to see Father Labaky, the Maronite priest who had tried in vain to awaken the conscience of the West to the plight of the Lebanese Christians. I had asked to meet Father Saba Dagher, the Melkite priest from Maghdousheh, a village in the south of the country built around the sanctuary of Notre Dame de Mantara, which had reputedly been visited by the Holy Virgin during her wanderings while pregnant with Christ. A beautiful Byzantine liturgy had been preserved in Maghdousheh, with ceremonies and processions that filled the whole town and countryside with a jubilant Christian witness. Father Dagher had devoted his life to this holy place, to the congregation he had been called to instruct and protect, and to the Shiite community who shared their village.
He was a frail, shattered man with a grey beard and trembling hands, who was too troubled to converse directly but who read from a prepared text. His story was one that I had heard in many versions. The Amal militia ostensibly Shiite, and therefore in principle friendly had arrived in Maghdousheh, offering to protect the town from the roving gangs of Palestinians who were destroying the Lebanese countryside. The Palestinians promptly entered without a fight, and installed their artillery between the houses. Amal then opened fire from the surrounding fields and reduced Maghdousheh to rubble. For two weeks Father Dagher had been obliged to stay in a house only one minute from his home, crouching in the cellar. When the Palestinians quietly left one night, again without a fight, Amal replaced them and began to shoot the villagers, both young and old, in reprisal for having allowed the Palestinians to enter. Those who were not murdered were driven from their homes, or taken hostage.
Yet more agreeable than bringing modern ideas and scholarship to the Poles was the sight of the old tried ways of Europe, thriving in the face of oppression, and awakening in the young British visitor the deep-down awareness of the Christian way of life.
Father Dagher was ill, having become deaf from the bombardments. He was put in an ambulance belonging to Hezbollah, to be driven to the Islamic Committee centre; but the ambulance crashed, and he was able to escape with a fellow passenger across the fields. Now he was condemned to death by the Islamo-Progressist forces, for having worked for good relations between Christians and Shiites.
The tears ran slowly down Father Dagher's cheeks as he told his story. He recalled the sacking and burning of the houses, the villagers fleeing into barren hills with no one to protect them, the shrine of Our Lady, one of the holiest and most ancient in Christendom, desecrated, its icons and vestments pillaged or burned. But what grieved him most was that his work of reconciliation had come to nothing. It was for this that Maghdousheh had been singled out for destruction and he it was who was blamed for it.
I asked him at last why the Christians had done so much for the Shiites, if this was their only reward.
Cétait notre apostolat, he said simply.
And in that one word I saw why Basia still stood so calmly in her chosen place, and why Monsignor Gilbey worked so tirelessly to maintain the social distinctions which Heaven too respected. I saw too why Father Popieluszko was murdered and why the world can sink away from God and still belong to Him. Rightly or wrongly, Basia had seen me as her apostolate: in caring for me she was following Him. And to follow Him is holiness. (I thought of the peculiar way in which she referred to Him, with the capital letter always audible. On, in Polish, in whose steps she trod.) Perhaps the best summary of Basia's church, as I finally understood it, was given not by a Catholic but by a Protestant, one who had lived through the previous time of desolation in Central Europe:
God is offended by nothing and bears everything, even crucifixion; he loves humanity boundlessly and helps in the manner of a disarmed man: he teaches, leads, praises, gives examples, chides and warns. How does he practise this method? He sends good people into the world, who are a model to those around them ...
The apostolic church is a church of the heart. When you steal from it you steal the heart. Hence the theft is easy; and amends are long and hard.
Roger Scruton. "Stealing from Churches." excerpted from chap. 5 in Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. (NY: Continuum, 2005): 63-83
Reproduced by kind permission of Continuum International Publishing Group and Roger Scruton.
Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2019) was a philosopher, public commentator and author of over 40 books. He was a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and Professor at the University of Buckingham. He is the author of Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, On Human Nature, The Disappeared, Notes from Underground, The Face of God, The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope, Beauty, Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation, I Drink therefore I am, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought, News from Somewhere: On Settling,An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, Sexual Desire, The Aesthetics of Music, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, A Political Philosphy, and Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. Roger Scruton was a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2007 Roger Scruton
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