Metaphors for our current condition seem to leap at me from all quarters these days. Bear with me as I pull my usual stunt of coming at my point from all angles.
It was with great interest that I read in the news of a spectacular but rather sad moment yesterday morning. Safety engineers were called to a house in Stamford Street, Ashton-Under-Lyne, Manchester - pauses for applause - the front facade of which had buckled alarmingly outwards towards the road. What happened next, with one engineer up in a cherry picker, was captured by a bystander on camera.
Note the reaction of the Mancunian onlookers. Yes, they laugh at collapsing houses where I come from. Don't be soft! So much for the spectacular.
What was sad was that this house had formerly been the home of English poet Francis Thompson, best known as the author of The Hound of Heaven. Like his house, or more specifically that of his doctor father, Thompson's life would be a spectacle of gradual disintegration followed by precipitous collapse.
I find Thompson interesting for various reasons. His poetry can be difficult and abstruse, his turns of phrase occasionally infelicitous and his imagery obscure. You would expect nothing less from a man addicted to opium and without the comfort of a fortune. Frankly, The Hound of Heaven remains the more comfortable face of a poet whose own demons and troubles - his own flight from God - are more accurately represented in poems like The Nightmare of the Witch Babies. The poem describes a fair maiden and a young knight who follows her into some dark, devilish wood, only for them both to be transformed into the witch babies of the title. The poem evokes Thompson's own fate from which he was only partly protected by a London prostitue, a helper and doubtless a lover - to Thompson's pained regret:
The elder hath a name,
And the name of it is Lust;
And the name of that its brother
Ah, Its name is Lust's Disgust!
They are ever in a land
Where the sun is dead with rust,
So the scummy [?] mist thickens below:
Woe, for the witch-babies, woe! woe! woe!
The question mark is no mistake. Thompson's sordid manuscript is not clear. There is not much place for careful editing in the arms of a hovel-bound, drug-driven desperation.
I could be painting Thompson too black here. The fact is he was a deeply pious man. His spiritual insight was recognised by Catholic publisher Wilfred Meynell and Alice, his wife, for whom Thompson seems to have had the glad eye. They took pity on him, supported him as best they could, dragged him out of the gutter occasionally, helped temper his rampant self absorption, and polished his reputation when he passed on so his worst side would be forgotten by history.
Thompson was a sinner, of that there is little doubt. But he was a sinner who was dragging himself out of the gutter by the grace of God. Thompson felt evil on him like a cloying film, but continued to turn his face to the heavens and a better hope. Evelyn Waugh magnificently recreates this spiritual model in the character of Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited . He is a drunk, in self-inflicted exile in Africa, and a precious worry to all his carers; but, says his sister Cordelia, he is a saint. He is a man on his way to Calvary, continually picking himself up from the filth on the floor, and stumbling on. He is another Francis Thompson.
So, why do I say this is all a handy metaphor for our own age? I say it for at least two reasons. Readers of this blog - many albeit not all - are feeling deeply alienated by the current papacy. We have been alarmed by the pope's inconsistencies, by his recklessness, by his penchant for theologians like Walter Kasper, and for thoughtlessly selling his troops down the river by gabbling to the media.
But one of the dangers in this moment is to retreat into a kind of Catholicism where, in our imagination, a pope never makes a mistake, where Catholics are on a constant moral radar alert, and where we retreat unconsciously into a kind of fake ideal of how things should really be. The problem is not that we fail to notice the evil facing us - and I believe the effects of the current uncertainties are potentially full of evil - but that we fail to examine our assumptions about the possible alternatives. Papal blunders come unwittingly to form a carapace around our own mistaken ideas: if the pope is wrong, I must be right, we think.
I feel sometimes we are like a battalion that has somehow got separated from la Grande armée - we are the lost battalion! - and now that we find our commander alienating, we try to reinvent soldiery as we imagine it must really be. But in many places, we are too deeply separated from the past; we are the victims of our own ideals, while declaring ourselves the faithful inheritors of past traditions.
This metaphor - baroque as it is - fails of course on several scores, not least because we refuse to believe that the Holy Spirit has abandoned the Church. We must refuse the idea, at the price of entertaining wild theses. The Church is not just a set of laws or even just a public order.
Francis Thompson's story, and the story of his house, are, therefore, metaphors for me. They are metaphors of the need for anchorage in the real. They are metaphors of the need for anchorage in the Spirit. And they are metaphors for the inevitable truth that this world is falling like nothing has fallen since Satan fell from Heaven (with euthanized children being only the latest addition to the plummet). Physical poverty is a deep and abiding problem but it will not keep us out of heaven. Spiritual poverty will take our souls. If shedding innocent blood will lead the Mafia to hell, how much more will destroying the innocence of souls lead us to hell?
We have to laugh of course, like those jolly Mancunians. We'd go mad otherwise. But really, we cannot stand in front of the Church like someone standing in front of Francis Thompson's house and comment on the cracking paintwork. Between aging congregations, a dearth of babies, confused leadership and liturgical and doctrinal erosion, our near future is being outlined. We must fight such tendencies with all our might but we must do something else too: we must avoid building our own castles in the air. When the resurrection comes, it will not be the one we invent for ourselves, but the one that comes to us as a gift from God.