Friday, 28 March 2014

The Fall of the House of Francis: on reaction to papal blunders

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:

Two witch-babies,
Ha! Ha!
Two witch-babies,
Ho! Ho!
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.


HughOSB said...

On the second half of your post I shall remain silent, discretion being ever the better part of valour.

But that video - I saw it yesterday but had no idea it was Francis Thompson's house. Now hearing the bystanders' laughter stings.

Thompson, from the little I know of him, seemed to have been relatively free of the fantastical pride that afflicted another Catholic sinner and occasional down-and-out, Frederick Rolfe. And free of Rolfe's more egregious sins as well.

For all that, both left a legacy to the world. The Hound of Heaven, which must be read aloud for proper appreciation, ranks as worthy spiritual reading, not just poetry.

Moreover, both stand as testimony to the mercy of God, at least they do to me.


Jack Tollers said...

" ...we refuse to believe that the Holy Spirit has abandoned the Church. We must refuse the idea, at the price of entertaining wild theses."

OK. I'm not another of your sedevacantists. However, I cannot but remember again and again what Saint Justin Martyr said about the Church's fate: "Ecclesia de medio fiet", whatever that means, however that fits in with Christ's promises in the sense that the doors of Hell would not prevail.

Maybe we should look into this a bit more thoroughly...

ATDP said...

I am confused. Are you saying that we are too idealistic to think the Pope never makes mistakes? Or that we should have the humility not to think we know the way things out to be?

What are you referring to by our own castles in the air?

Ches said...

I'm not saying this is a universal tendency, but I'm hearing all kinds of weird criticisms of practically everything Francis does which makes me think the critics are holding up some impossibly pure version of what a pope looks like.

I definitely think we ought to be humble enough to admit we do not necessarily know how things ought to be. Permit me a Gandalfism: 'Not even the wise can see all ends.' I'm not saying I know. But I hope I know how not to fall into idealism about possible reform.

And by castles in the air, I simply mean those things that people believe would make all the difference. Some trads speak as if changing the Mass or suppressing Vatican II would do the trick. God alone knows what would do the trick - if any trick is possible - but it won't just be some simplistic programmatic redesign (like Vatican II itself!). That is my view anyway and that is what I meant.

Michael Smith said...

Thank you for putting into words so succinctly what inner struggles I am having with the current Pope.

wkndbeachcomber said...

"deeply alienated by the current papacy"

So. I live most of my life without regard for God or the teachings of the Church. One day I see the error of my ways and re-catechize myself with the adult version, the hard teachings. I see more clearly what I have to do and what I have to not do. Then the new pope comes along and says 'hogwash'.
What the hell is the point?

I'm not looking for an idealized version, but how about a version that is not completely confusing? Is what was true yesterday true today or isn't it? Yes or no, please don't give me pastoral locutions that make absolutely no sense. I feel like I've gone from mystical revelation to some guy reading fortunes from a cookie.
God's non-answer to Job leaves him comforted; some things are not for us to know. This pope is disquieting - in a bad way - and no comfort at all to my afflicted soul.

Ches said...

In your state of confusion over the pope, you appear to be implying that my remarks here apply to everyone. They don't. They were prefaced by 'One of the dangers...'. I have written at considerable length about Pope Francis and the confusion he causes. I would simply argue that there is an element in some people's confusion which also comes from how they understand or imagine the papacy to be. If that's not you, well, good for you. But believe me, some of the utter claptrap I read says more about the the listeners than it does about Francis.

This is not an exoneration of Francis, as you appear to imply.

Lynda said...

Wkndbeachcomber, we are all suffering terribly in the general apostasy of so many of our spiritual leaders. Remember, the Church is true and prevails even if a pope is bad and does not do his duties or errs gravely. Moreover, if a pope purports to invoke his infallible magisterium by asserting heresy, he is excommunicate and not the pope. The Church remains. Find other orthodox Catholics so you can strengthen each other in the one, true Faith and help each other in the persecution. God bless you! Your sister in Christ. Lynda

Anagnostis said...

"I feel like I've gone from mystical revelation to some guy reading fortunes from a cookie."

I remember that. That's exactly how I was. My impartial advice is to ignore the Pope. Read the Gospels. Forgive absolutely everybody, without let or hindrance; ask forgiveness of everybody; give a load of stuff away; pray, and fast a little. Go to the sacraments. Everything else is chaff.

Ches said...

I second everything Anagnostis says, although not 'ignore the pope'. One can live a quiet life doing all the things Anagnostis says, but one cannot ignore one's father in Christ. So, I would say pray for the pope. Pray, and bear in mind we have seen bad times before and they won't last forever.

Anagnostis said...

Yes. That's better. Pray for the Pope. Ignore the media phenomenon.

wkndbeachcomber said...


I appreciate that you are dealing with one facet of the reaction to the reign of Francis. My frustrations were certainly not meant to be seen as being directed toward you. My apologies for not expressing myself more clearly.

wkndbeachcomber said...

Ches, Lynda, Anagnostics - Thank you.

Ches said...

God bless you, wkndbeachcomber! This papacy is trying the patience of so many people. Oremus pro invicem, as they say.

DonnaLiane said...

I agree with the confusion and darkness settling over the Church- more so since Francis' election. But we convert to the Truths of the One True Catholic faith- not to Francis! We would not care much at all about him if he were not to be the guardian of the deposit of Faith. He is not more important than the Church Christ founded! He is merely the servant- or meant to be- as are we. God's servants. Learn your faith ever more fervently and defend it as the Saints did! Connect with those who do support you. Read heaven's prophecies and glory and hope in what is to come. Many, if not all, of the prophecies in the past 150 yrs, read in light of today's events, clarify and crystallize. Read The Apocolypse/Revelations too. Pray for discernment. God never fails to answer.

Ben said...

Well, that brought a shudder to this Ashtonian's heart. It was the blue plaque, which we see being buried in the ruination in that video, that first piqued my interest in Francis Thompson, prompting me to trip along to the wonderful old Ashton Library at the end of that same street, and start reading his poetry. Then I wrote a thesis on nineteenth century religious poetry, and became a Catholic, though not in that order and not quite as simply as that. Still, having a famous Catholic poet as a neighbour was formative. How sad that the house was allowed to get into that state of neglect. In any civilized country it would have been turned into a museum. There used to be a street named after him too - Francis Thompson Way - but it got annihilated when they built the new bus station, not long before they pulled down the Catholic Church opposite ...

wkndbeachcomber's comments remind me of another literary convert, David Jones, who wrote in the heady years after the Council that he felt like a man who had slowly and laboriously climbed a tall staircase, only to find the residents of the top floor flat sliding down the banisters with whoops of abandon. I can sympathize.