The walls of the playground

“Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”

– G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 9

Every culture, if it is a real culture, has a stable center of gravity – a core of permissible ideas and behaviors that do not change, or if they do, they change very slowly. For centuries the West had for its “core” the doctrine and discipline of the Christian religion. As Chesterton reminds, that discipline can be thought of as the walls of a playground.

In the “engage the culture” conversation I have taken the position that the walls have crumbled and need rebuilding. There is a time for play, and there is a time for work, and now is the time for work, the time for pushing back the enemy and rebuilding the walls, so that the world – or at least our corner of the world – can be made safe for the playground again. I’ve been harping on “the walls, the walls, the walls!”, and have even been accused of not believing in the playground anymore.

But I believe fiercely in the playground. If you knew me better, you might even think that I believe wickedly and mischievously in the playground, as a parasite believes in its host. Let me explain. It is impossible to be irreverent when the world no longer believes in reverence. It is impossible to tell an “edgy” joke when the edge has moved before you finish telling it. It is impossible push the envelope when there are no boundaries that envelop. Our entertainment and humor is degenerating fast because there is no stable context for it. In fact, today’s humor is often forced to establish a context – usually a caricature consisting of a “repressed”, conservative, religious milieu that most people have never experienced – for some protagonist to violate. Increasingly, however, Political Correctness has taken the place of Christianity, and some of the new comedians apply their irreverence to PC dogma, although it changes so fast it’s hard to keep up with, forcing the violators to anticipate the next move and push the envelope still further. An obvious problem with this is that PC is itself a caricature of its host, Christian morality, and it is not uncommon for the two to overlap in places. What offends against PC, often enough, offends even more egregiously against its predecessor.

I’ve been fortunate to have a little window into what the Christian playground really looks like. This is due to my exposure to a few “old world” ethnic communities, not so well-assimilated, and to what I call “the last generation of the Old Republic”, Americans now in their eighties and nineties. They understood the playground, they knew where the walls were, and they knew how to climb the walls properly – and dangerously – without falling over the edge. The mischievous ones delighted in skirting the edges and almost scandalizing onlookers, but they still respected the boundaries. Think of the humor of Bob Hope, W.C. Fields, Steve Allen, Bob Newhart, or even Bill Cosby in his earlier days. When the center of gravity holds, there is a generous place for eccentricity and a certain degree of non-conformity. When Christian culture is strong and confident, there is a place for the heretic and even the village atheist.

I’ve attended religious festivals of various unassimilated immigrant communities over the years. The general atmosphere on such occasions is traditional, family oriented, and wholesome. There is a delightful intermingling of the generations: men and boys horsing around, young mothers with two or three little ones clinging to them, pretty girls walking arm-in-arm with their grandfathers, etc.. That said, it isn’t uncommon for some of the men to tell slightly off-color stories among themselves, or to drink and smoke a little more than they should; or for some of the women to gossip among themselves, or to display more bosom than they ought; or for some of the performances to be a little too flirtatious and suggestive, teasing the borders of propriety and scandalizing the pious church ladies (who are loved rather than mocked). These festivals are wonderful to behold. Everyone knows the rules. Sometimes the rules are broken, to be sure, but a good time is had by all – and the following Sunday there is a long line at the confessional before Mass.

It’s no use pretending. This kind of thing just isn’t possible in the post-modern secular West – by which I mean to include most quarters of the Catholic Church – apart from a few obscure little enclaves here and there. The playground that was once Christendom no longer exists: the walls have crumbled, the barbarians are pouring in, it is impossible to know what the rules are, and no one, it seems, has anything to confess.

26 thoughts on “The walls of the playground

  1. Now this is something I agree with wholeheartedly. The problem is, those in cities who often make the most laws and the most noise in newspapers never get to see these folks you speak of. I’ve seen them, and I agree. It’s as “normal” as it gets. I get a taste of this when I go to family parties with my Catholic friends, one of whom was born in Ireland. They know how to party. It’s fun, and if someone is drunk, nobody really minds because it’s funny! They know how to just sit back, relax, dance and sing and play the fiddle, and have a real life. They are in their early 30’s, too!
    Those little pockets are surviving. Many of them, I believe, were heavily influenced by Pope John Paul II and World Youth Day. They saw something beyond themselves and they strived toward it. And we all continue too.
    Thanks for the insight.


  2. I, too, agree wholeheartedly. There’s a great deal of holiness in the admission that one is not altogether holy, and salvation in knowing that one needs salvation. As you point out, our modern culture is in many ways too dangerous to play with. I imagine Chesterton’s little island as having a few small drop-offs before you get to the walls, where people can push the edges a little without falling over. People would celebrate and then know where to go to be absolved.

    I have a small idea: I’ve seen these signs, along Highway 99 and elsewhere, that have little Bible verses on them or “quotes” attributed to God, or pro-life messages. I wonder what it would take to get a group of Catholics to get together some money and rent billboards encouraging people to go to confession. A simple return to regular confession would help Catholic’s lives so dramatically I wish there was some way to do this


  3. I think this is a very insightful post. I think, too, that the purveyors of trash in our time try to portray themselves as simply freed from “puritanical constraints” and so forth, as if they really are just those healthy people getting a little drunk at the festival. Certainly the literary critics in the English departments try to appropriate anything of that sort to their own ideas of “overthrowing hierarchy” and what-not. When in fact they could not be farther away from the people you describe.


  4. Ann Marie: Good examples. It’s true that little pockets are surviving and even thriving. Come to think of it, I never enjoyed parties until I became a Catholic. No one else parties like the trads in Sacramento. :-)

    Daniel: That’s a super idea. I mean that’s a really, really good idea. Don’t lose it. All that is needed is funding!

    Lydia: You’re absolutely right. There’s a world of difference between the ball-playing kids who accidentally break a window on Saturday morning, and the gang of vandals who prowl the neighborhood smashing windows after midnight.


  5. “Now this is something I agree with wholeheartedly.” “I, too, agree wholeheartedly. “I think this is a very insightful post.”

    I’m impressed that we’re still talking about all this.

    BTW: re, the price of power from the previous post. Britain has just been told that the price of electricity and gas is going up 40 to 70 per cent next year. We really needed to cull the elderly, apparently. I suppose it’s one way to deal with the problem of an aging population.


    I’m also enjoying reading this post…

    while listening to Green Day.


  6. Hilary:

    No pouting, now. If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you had run out of arguments.

    Sorry to hear the news about Britain’s energy prices. It’s going to be an “interesting” winter in the northern hemisphere.

    What’s Green Day? Another weird English rock group?


  7. And it’s even creepier when the vandals put on masks that make them look like the cute red-headed kids playing ball and then dare you to oppose them. What meanie would oppose Opie who just breaks your window while playing ball?


  8. I’m not sure which is which. I always mix up Green Day with Oasis. One is the English one and the other is the American one. They’re “alt-rock” bands who like to bad mouth traditional morality and patriotism. you know the sort of thing…


  9. Alas! Alas, ’tis all too true.

    We can, of course, have hope in the ringing triumphant fact that the Truest and Greatest Playground of all is a-coming.

    We can have further hope that, even if the playgrounds our ancestors knew, and we know only in fleeting moments, are near irretrievable ruin, other ones are being built even now.


  10. Oh, and I’m reading this listening to Bob Dylan. It’s “Positively 4th Street” — one of his songs bidding a bitter farewell to the hippies and folkies.


  11. I think the point is to keep the walls in your own life, your own soul. The walls are there for me. Built by Oratorians, who are known to be excellent craftsmen.

    This is why the playground analogy resonates so well with me. I have no fear at all of the bad old world because I know exactly where the wall is. I enjoy looking over it. And I’ve been told many times by the men who built the wall that this is perfectly all right.


  12. +JMJ+

    I honestly can’t believe that there are people who can mix up Green Day and Oasis. =O Their music is very different–and even those who don’t think so can at least tell apart the respective lead singers’ voices.


  13. Jeff,

    This is, hands down, the best counterpoint argument I’ve seen since this discussion began. I like what you have to say here, and I think there’s a lot of truth to it.

    I also think Hilary’s right about the interior wall.

    I also know that Oasis > Green Day.


  14. The more I read on this topic, the more convinced I am that each of us is left on our own to hazard a guess as to how to engage/cope with our contemporary culture(s). Two contrasting schools of thought, each with its poignant arguments.

    I’m coming to believe that the relativistic canard “what works for you doesn’t necessarily for me and vice versa” actually does apply here after all….

    Take my own example. After long years as a partisan for one prominent traditionalist fraternity of irregular status (one particularly known for its “one approach fits all” philosophy regarding anything), and more recently a patron of a regular TLM parish, I find myself quite disillusioned at the prospect of anything resembling a textbook old-school Catholic sense of community. Yet others here and there have found it and have written about it, our host included. So why the dissimilarity in experience?

    Recent forays of mine into the realm of contemporary psychology — a realm disdained by most Catholics of the old school — have given me the cornerstone of that elusive answer at last, and it can be summed up in two words: “Asperger’s Syndrome.” To put it simply: I’m an even more different duck than I previously thought I was. Radically so. While I spent a lifetime in depressed frustration at not fitting in and never understanding why, now at least I know what’s at the root of it … and it’s something that cannot be fixed, only worked around, and painstakingly at that. People like me have to learn everything about the social life the same way most people have to be taught math.

    When someone like myself, having a brain wired so differently as to lack any inborn social instincts, hears talk about the “social nature of Catholicity” and the critical importance of a supportive community, my own instinctive reaction is one of aversion, and in my case, I’ve had the reinforcement of severely negative feedback to what efforts I did make in past years to live up to this ideal.

    Hence, what is Catholicity to me? A hierarchy with lineage back to the Apostles, a body of settled doctrine, a system of Sacraments and other spiritual aids, and a whole lot of unsettled questions regarding the viability of old-school ways in contemporary times — questions that, given the very different way autistics perceive and understand everything, I am left to try to answer for myself.

    So I go to Mass alone, hardly saying a word to anyone and leaving immediately at the end. I’ve gravitated to secular folks for some limited measure of companionship, as I’ve discovered I find a much better chance of being appreciated for who I am by some of these than by fellow Catholics. I’ve learned to build a higher threshold of tolerance of the world and its insanity than I had as a partisan “trad,” when I used to blog with self-righteous indignation about so many things under the sun. I don’t pretend to have found holy contentment in my sojourn … but, at the very least, I did flee a realm that was causing me more disquiet than I could handle … so, a net positive.

    And yet my solution will be wrong for many others. Let them labor to forge the communities they need, and either engage the culture or else bunker themselves as they see fit. I’ve felt it necessary to take this approach: God will deal with the crisis in the Church and the world, and until He does, I must find my own way in both — by myself, and not trusting any single school of thought overly much.


  15. Somerset:

    Thanks for the comments and the personal insights. From what I understand, Asperger’s is a heavy cross in any context. Social relations will always be difficult, although much progress can be made. That you find companionship more readily among worldly people than traditional Catholics is probably due to a couple of things. The “traditional” Catholic world is presently: 1) much too small; 2) much too self-selecting. Unfortunately this is not likely to be corrected until the Church more fully recovers herself – which is happening, albeit slowly.

    I agree with you that the “solution” to the crisis of Catholic community is not be the same for everyone. There are many in your shoes, even without the disadvantage of Asperger’s, who are simply without a network of family and friends and have found their way through life – and to tradition! – entirely on their own. Such is the extreme isolation of modern times, which only exacerbates the problem of those already on the margins for one reason or another.

    To some extent community, if it is consciously pursued, always ends up a disappointment. It never works as an end in itself. I don’t think it is too simplistic to state that, if one adheres tenaciously to the Faith, whatever “community” God wants for you will follow.


  16. Somerset,

    You have a great advantage over me. I’m just plain anti-social, difficult, recalcitrant and contrary. I wish I could have a diagnosis that would to some degree excuse and explain it, but not everyone is so fortunate.

    “‘social nature of Catholicity” and the critical importance of a supportive community, my own instinctive reaction is one of aversion,”

    Me too. All my life, I’ve wanted little more than to be left alone to do my thing, think my thoughts and be as weird as I care to be. Something about the whole Trad/Neo-Cath movement puts me in mind of highschool.

    By the time I was 15 I was fed to the back teeth with the cool kids, with the minute requirements in dress, deportment and behaviour that are presented as unarguable passes into acceptance. It made me mad then, mad enough to go join the misfits in the art room and the smoke pit. At least there we could all be as weird as we liked.

    I decided then never to be bullied into a preconceived idea of how I ought to be. Not by anyone.

    I was under the impression that the point of Catholicism is the relationship of the person, the soul, with God.

    Community is nice, but it’s not the core. It’s not the purpose. It’s not the goal or the end.


  17. I agree with Jeff about traditional Catholic groups tending to be too small and too self-selecting. (I’d go as far as to call them “exclusive.”) I may wear a mantilla, kneel to receive Communion, and know Latin, but that’s about all I have in common with many “traditional” Catholics.

    When I paid a visit to an old high school friend who had since become an Opus Dei numerary, I was both moved to tears at the beauty God had wrought in her soul and chilled at the thought that it would never be the same between us again. The “walls” St. Josemaria Escriva outlined for her and her own inner walls kind of kept me out, too.

    If I really wanted some community, I’d join the Evangelical church down the block. There are times in my lonely existence that I wish I could. It sometimes seems that every person close to my age and capable of tuning into my wavelength has joined said chuch. Then I remember that I’ve had trouble finding friends I could really share my heart with since I was at least seven years old, so can’t be about that.


  18. In fact, today’s humor is often forced to establish a context – usually a caricature consisting of a “repressed”, conservative, religious milieu that most people have never experienced – for some protagonist to violate

    This reminded me of a review of Chocolat. The comment being that it was virtually impossible to imagine anywhere today where a church-skipping, out-of-wedlock mom could be shamed by the community. So the movie was dialed back to 1960 and set in a remote French village and still it defies credulity. It’s not a matter of retreating, it’s a case of being squeezed out and marginalized. Or as I say, I never left Western Civ, Western Civ left me.


  19. I suppose this expresses my own experience as a Mexican-American in this country living in a rather enclosed barrio. One example that comes to mind are the home remedies of our grandmothers that used Catholic prayers and bordered on witchcraft. Anytime I have hung out with devout fellow Catholics of the Anglo persuasion, the atmosphere always feels a little forced. The atmosphere you portray here is also very similar to that of devout circles in Latin America. My fellow seminarians in Argentina could be irreverent to the point of bordering on scandal (they knew where to draw the line, though). I remember a procession of Our Lord of the Miracles of some Peruvian immigrants in Buenos Aires. Talk about here comes everybody! There people dressed up as cartoon characters in the vanguard, families, old women, young hooligans, you name it.

    In any case, such texts as the Chesterton one you cited always leave me a bit sad. Sort of the stuff of an outsider looking in. And you’re right. Even in the circles I grew up in, this playground is an endangered species.


  20. “If I really wanted some community, I’d join the Evangelical church down the block.”

    I know what you mean. Every Sunday the bells of St. Alban’s, the village “parish” (Anglican) ring out with the ancient Christan call to prayer. The church is gorgeous 19th century English Neo-Gothic (bell tower is 16th century). I know that the congregation is very kindly and friendly, and, for the CofE are strong Christian believers. I live in one of those little places that is itself a kind of cultural enclave where much of traditional English country life is preserved. It is not a mere suburb of Chester, and while there are lots of office workers, one is as likely to meet the local dairy farmer in his muddy boots in the corner chemist as the local lawyer. There are a lot of older people here who have lived here all their lives and whose families have been here since the Before Time. There is even one chap, a former parish councillor, who rides his pony trap into the village every week, parks at the mounting block outside the Bear and Ragged Staff pub to do his shopping and have a pint.

    At the heart of this is still the parish of St. Albans. I know the minister there, and I know that he is an extremely good man, a devout and God-fearing pastor to his flock. He is from Zimbabwe and spent 20 years as a policeman under the Mugabe regime and so is no stranger to the painful realities of life. The church stands on a site on which it is thought there has been a church possibly as early as the 5th century. It is, in other words, a site sacred and consecrated both to God and to my ancient heritage.

    It ought to be mine.

    Every week, I listen to the bells calling me to join in this and I can’t. I have to go to the miserable one-story brick garage, built in the 1970s by a missionary order who has since gone the Birkenstocks and warm hugs route. I have to sit in a room full of people whose irreligion and indifference and ignorance of the ancient Faith comes off them in waves like a bad smell. Every week I get to sit in the little brick hovel and listen to the softcore marxism being pedaled as the Faith while I know that the Faith resides between the ribs of the people in ancient St. Albans and they would love to have me. It would give me a place in this little community like nothing else could.

    This is what being an English Catholic is. It is to be exiled and ousted from what is yours by right of inheritance, and fed sweetened poison by the apostates who are supposed to be defending the true Faith.

    So, yeah.

    Plenty of times I got the same feeling. Plenty.


  21. Pingback: On the Outside Looking In « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

  22. Pingback: John Zmirak’s crusade against the Catholic “sub-culture” « New Sherwood

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