LONDON, ONTARIO – Back around the turn of the century I marked my fifteenth year as a Catholic by participating in a 72-hour Lenten retreat at an Opus Dei centre north of Toronto. Each silent day of prayer and reflection was punctuated by daily Mass and three ‘meditations’ led by a newly ordained Peruvian priest whose command of English wasn’t fabulous (yet) but whose logical cast of mind and bottomless knowledge of the faith were. I initially worried that his carefully measured manner of speaking was going to be an enervating trial but quickly came to regard it as ideal for taking in and actually digesting what he had to say. They were not dazzling talks that he gave. No one was left gasping to apprehend all the territory that was touched on. And if delivered in a public lecture hall, such a talk might even have made me impatient. But in this quieter atmosphere of piety and meditation where dazzling was not the point, his almost pedantic approach was infinitely more assimilable and constructive and lodged much deeper in my consciousness as a result.
I was reminded of the wisdom of that priest’s slow and steady instruction earlier this month when reading St. John Henry Newman’s 1848 novel, Loss and Gain, in which he lightly fictionalizes the process he went through in converting to Roman Catholicism. Coming to know the faith was, Newman wrote, “a work of time; all the paper arguments in the world are unequal to giving one a view in a moment. There must be a process; they may shorten it, as medicine shortens physical processes, but they can’t supersede its necessity.”
Newman’s narrating character then recollects how all the religious doubts and theories he’d been entertaining and developing and trying on for size suddenly “went to flight” several months earlier when he learned of his father’s death and he postulates why this was so: “They weren’t part of me, and could not sustain rough weather. Conviction is the eyesight of the mind, not a conclusion from premises; God works it, and His works are slow. At least so it is with me. I can’t believe on a sudden; if I attempt it, I shall be using words for things, and be sure to repent it. Or if not, I shall go right merely by hazard. I must move in what seems God’s way; I can but put myself on the road; a higher power must overtake me, and carry me forward.”
The single lesson I recall most frequently from that retreat – about the unconventionality of faith today and the way in which it will almost certainly set you at odds with the society around you – was both prefaced and encapsulated in a joke. It went something like this: A megalomaniac is barreling the wrong way down a busy freeway and is sending oncoming traffic careening into the gutters to avoid a collision. Our mad driver is incredulous when he hears a bulletin on his radio that commuters should be aware that there is one rather oblivious kook out there who is endangering lives and wreaking havoc with the traffic flow. “One?” he bellows at his radio. “What do you mean one? There’s thousands of them.” The enormous payoff for this joke was partly due to our priest’s fragile command of English. The joke worked well in its own right but seeing this particular speaker successfully navigate the telling somehow doubled his victory.
Though I personally don’t drive and never have, I find there are more and more occasions in my life when my refusal to play along with what I know to be a lie, seems to leave me ploughing headlong into heavy and deluded traffic. Consider the pressure being applied on every front – by the government, the police, the media, the schools and the courts – to not use what is regarded as a too harsh and innately judgmental word like ‘prostitute’ any more. Now we’re all supposed to call people who rent out their bodies, ‘sex workers’, and thereby pretend to pay them the same sort of respect we would accord any other kind of professional who has developed certain skills and expertise by which they earn their living. Who doesn’t know in their heart of hearts that this is an utter sham? That nobody actually believes it for a second? That no parent worthy of the name would be anything but heartbroken if any child of theirs started soliciting? That a vigilance committee would string up any guidance counselor by his or her heels if they started handing students brochures about Your Wonderful Career in the Sex Trade?
There was a report issued by Western University a few years ago outlining how stressful and dangerous such ‘sex work’ is and advocating that these blameless professionals of the boudoir be given free bus tickets because they aren’t earning enough money turning tricks to make it out to the many medical and psychological counseling appointments that their grubby and soul-rotting line of work necessitates. Shouldn’t we be encouraging these women to find a way out of this racket instead of coming up with ways to help them stay in? Why is our society trying to put a more agreeable face on what everyone instinctively knows is a squalid and miserable way to make a buck?
I have never been an habitué of personal advice columnists. Not only do the questions almost never strike me as being worth asking, I’m instinctively inclined to doubt their authenticity. Could anybody really be so clueless about how to proceed in some personal situation? But back in my teenaged years I used to sample Ann Landers from time to time and developed a grudging sort of respect for the sassy way she had of occasionally urging her actual or contrived correspondents to cut the crap and face the facts.
Though it did not originate with her, Ms. Landers greatly popularized the brisk admonition to “Wake up and smell the coffee,” and even featured it as the title for her most popular book of selected columns. She didn’t know who originated the line and said she picked it up from the mother-in-law of her twin sister who wrote the competing Dear Abby column. The fact that these dueling counselors had a long-standing feud that prevented them from talking to each for decades at a stretch, doubtless inspired my disinclination to trust either of them as attending physicians of interpersonal snafus. I mean, if you can’t even find a way to be civil to your own bloody twin - than whom nobody on the planet is more like you; and with whom you share the most foundational understanding of absolutely everything - then maybe you’re not that well equipped to be handing out relationship advice to strangers.
Earlier this month I was lured into reading a column by Ann Landers’ successor, Amy Dickinson, and was disappointed (but not really surprised) to see that any semblance of regard for reality has been jettisoned and Amy has clambered on board our modern mania for fudging the facts. A headline about ‘transgenders’ – the single most prolific proponents of feelings-based hooey in our time – was what drew me into Amy’s doubleheader column in which she addressed the concerns of a man who believes he’s actually a woman and a woman who believes she’s actually a man.
Outlined in the two letters was all the stodgy foot-dragging and argy-bargy which these non-binary pioneers were experiencing in getting their parents and families to play along with their new identities. Interestingly enough, neither letter writer made mention of any surgical alterations to effect their transitions which suggests to me that even their commitment to the new regime was qualified and might partially explain why they were so desperately seeking affirmation from others. But if they weren't really transitioning, they were at least experimenting. Both parties were dressing in the other team’s uniforms, had grown out or trimmed their hair according to how they identified this week, and had taken on new names which their families were either resistant to or inconsistent in using.
Amy did at least point out that all this persona-bending could be a bit of a challenge for families as well and very sensibly suggested that if her correspondents were to employ a little patience and humour when foisting the latest gender protocols on parents and siblings, it might go quite a long way to de-charging the situation. But otherwise she lacked the fortitude to question any of the dubious and weaponized assertions that currently choke the possibility of rational discussion on transgender issues:
Amy placidly accepted the bizarre notions that sex is not manifested but is arbitrarily assigned at birth; that feeling like a man or a woman is somehow more real and more correct or true than actually occupying the body of a man or a woman; that refusing to ratify a transgender’s delusion by echoing back their chosen pronouns and names is an act of prejudice and disrespect. A not-so-funny dichotomy strikes me here: Refuse to affirm me in my new sexual identity and you're a bigot. But if I refuse to affirm your right to adhere to your own convictions in this matter, that somehow doesn't make me a bigot.
In short, Amy wasn’t counseling anyone to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’. She was going along to get along, letting the foolishly fashionable lies roll right over her for the sake of agreeableness which, more often than not, boils down to nothing more principled than a fear of appearing to be mean. It’s hard to imagine that there would be any sort of market for a published selection of such utterly supine columns but if Amy Dickinson should ever feel moved to produce one, then I think she should call it, Drink the Kool-Aid and Go to Sleep.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :