Lenten poem: “A Sonnet to the Sorrowful Jesus”

New Sherwood


I can think of no better poem for entering into the spirit of Lent than this one. The author may not approve of my mentioning his name, so I will merely link to his website.

A Sonnet to the Sorrowful Jesus

Let me mingle these, my tears, with Thine, 
Whose tears roll down Thy face’s cheeks so fine.

Let me share my sorrows, Lord, with Thee – 
And, too, Thy sorrows, prithee, share with me.

Let me know the love between us twain,
Who, lovers true, do share each other’s pain.

Let compassion, common, given be;
And thus shall I the love between us see.

Let me walk along, O Lord, with Thee,
Along the paths of this Gethsemane;

Let me be condemned with Thee and whipped,
And of the cup of sorrow take my sip; 

Let me wear Thy holy crown of thorns,
Along with Thee endure the soliders’…

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A Review of “Malcom Muggeridge: A Biography” by Gregory Wolfe

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“In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.” – St. Augustine

“Christ has created you because He wanted you. I know what you feel – terrible longing with dark emptiness. And yet He is the one in love with you.” – St. Teresa of Calcutta in a letter to Malcom Muggeridge

Generally speaking, modern people choose their religion so as to conform to the lives they are living. They believe as they live, rather than live as they believe.  This attempt to quiet their consciences can seem like a brave act of individual liberty in a society that glories in religious pluralism. But in a more Christian age, men did not deny the incongruity of their faith with the follies of their own lives. They knew that truth wasn’t going to change to suit them, and they forced themselves to live with the tension in the hopes that one day they would reform. Malcom Muggeridge was this pre-modern type of man. He lived badly for many years, but God refused to permit him the illusions modern men seem to enjoy.

The outline of Muggeridge’s life is well known. The son of a middle-class Fabian socialist, Malcom became impatient with the gradualism and hypocrisy of a socialist elite that didn’t have the stomach for revolution and, despite lip-service paid to egalitarianism and the plight of the working class, enjoyed lives of globe-trotting luxury and indulgence. He became a staunch communist and an open admirer of the Soviet Union. Upon graduation from Cambridge he traveled to India where he taught in the colonial schools, studied Hinduism and Islam, sympathized with Ghandi, and promoted Indian nationalism. Returning to England, he found work as a journalist and was assigned foreign correspondent to Moscow by the Manchester Guardian. He relished the opportunity to see Soviet communism up close. But what he learned in this revered “worker’s paradise” turned his enthusiasm into horror. Despite his own rhetorical excesses, Malcom discovered in himself a fierce hatred of cruelty and injustice. The barbaric inhumanity he witnessed in the name of atheistic communism turned him against every kind of mass ideological movement. He was furthermore aghast at the calculated dishonesty and, in some cases, the self-delusion of the Western intelligentsia when it came to the Soviet Union, upon which they projected their hopes and aspirations. It was also clear to him that these westerners relied upon the “success” of Marxism-Leninism for their reputations.

Malcom was the first to break the story of the Stalinist famine in the Ukraine, wherein four million perished by starvation and disease while their food – not only grain, but the food in every pantry! – was hauled away to feed more cooperative Russians. Those who resisted, or who were suspected of resistance, were simply shot. To keep the word from getting out, the border was sealed so that Ukrainians had no escape. On a clandestine and unauthorized trip to the Ukraine, Malcom watched starving peasants being loaded onto cattle trucks at gunpoint with their hands bound behind their backs. The story was censored at first, but Malcom would not be silent and became an implacable foe of communism for the rest of his life.

This courageous but unpopular act nearly cost Malcom his career. Still a man of the political Left, by this time the Left would no longer have him. He was barely employable as a journalist in England in all but the most pro-establishment Tory publications (which he detested politically) and gossip columns. His family struggled as he tried to pay the bills with various desperate writing gigs. The war came and he joined the armed forces as an intelligence officer, serving honorably. He returned to England and, by a series of unlikely employments and promotions, ended up a media star himself, landing finally at the BBC. During this time his politics moved further away from those of any party and developed into something that resembled a pragmatic libertarianism. He was clearly a gifted wordsmith, a master of the language, and an incisive commentator. The quality of his writing was recognized as superb. He was surprisingly adaptable as a compelling television presence. Malcom became widely respected – and also reviled – for his piercing criticism of those in positions of power and authority. His transparent sincerity was part of his appeal, once admitting “I hate government. I hate power. I think that man’s existence, insofar as he achieves anything, is to resist power, to minimize power, to devise systems of society in which power is the least exerted.” Toward the end of his career his wit, humor, and voice were known to all Englishman. His highly televised face was recognized everywhere.

And yet, beneath all of this worldly success, Malcom had long been miserable.

Malcom read the Bible secretly as a child, enthralled with the Christ-figure. While at Cambridge he embraced the religious skepticism of the day, but found himself drawn to mystics and even to the devout. His best friend was a serious Christian who became an Anglican clergyman. Malcom especially admired his asceticism and religious discipline. At the same time Malcom had fallen into the casual homosexuality of the elite, a phenomenon that was rife in England at the time, though he was still in love with a girl back home. (The extent to which casual male homosexuality was a staple of upper class English life has always eluded me, but it seems to have been ubiquitous for several generations even as it remained illegal. This must have had severe psychological effects on many of its practitioners.) His passions became unruly, particularly his sexual passions. When he married Kitty Dobbs, as good Fabian socialists they seriously considered having an “open marriage”. It might as well have been. Malcom’s sordid infidelities are too numerous to count; Kitty’s are less numerous but no less tragic. This compulsive behavior went on for decades, all through the highs and lows of his career. It always left him feeling empty, despairing, and lost. He and Kitty fought bitterly and constantly. As his family grew, he sought escape in projects that took him far from home. He attempted suicide at least once. He agonized over religious questions, and though he couldn’t bring himself to believe, he couldn’t bring himself to reject God altogether either.

Part of Malcom’s inner torment was his self-image as a permanent outsider. Painful in his youth, he tried hard to belong without success. Later he came to see his outsider status as having important advantages. He was in that sense a free man. As a writer he could say what he wanted to say, without worrying about who it might offend. He relished attacking the “establishment” and its acolytes, but extended his range of targets to anyone whom he felt exercised undue influence over others. Maintaining this posture required a spirit that lacked generosity. He was outside by choice now, and developed a sort of contempt for insiders. This gave him his freedom. Insiders are not free: they have to bow to their institutions and defend their absurdities. Or so Malcom thought. As applied to the Church, Malcom could not see himself accepting a set of doctrines that were above criticism or deferring to churchmen who were, in his estimation, just party men like all the others. The extreme patriotism after the war ended turned him off for similar reasons. You would never find Malcom Muggeridge waving a flag or a pom-pom. But his independence came at the price of arrogance, to the point where, after his acceptance of the Christian faith, he could no longer stand to watch himself on television, deploring this “terrible man” with a “certain arrogance about myself” and “completely lacking in humility”.

Malcom’s exceptional intelligence, energy, and productivity was driven by a force he didn’t understand.  The sheer volume impresses – books, plays, documentaries, interviews, hundreds of articles. He interviewed everyone from Churchill to MacArthur to Stalin’s daughter. His literary circles included all the men of letters of his time, being closest to George Orwell. He described his friend Graham Greene as a “saint who is trying unsuccessfully to be a sinner”; Hilaire Belloc as “not at all a serene man” nursing decades old grievances, and of whom, “having written about religion all of his life, there seemed to be very little in him”; and of Evelyn Waugh he said “I have formed the impression that he does not like me”, which was evidently true, although in fairness Waugh was a misanthrope who didn’t like anybody. Apart from Chesterton, whom he admired, the English Catholic literati did not impress Malcom as men whose Catholicism had changed them for the better. They left him curious but uninspired.

Behind the scenes of this busy public life was a titanic internal struggle between the flesh and the spirit. Even as Malcom gave in to the flesh, he would not surrender his mind. He began to see with increasing clarity how the ethos of liberalism had poisoned his own life, making himself and his loved ones miserable. What was previously a slow awakening became a torrent of awareness. He decried the comfortable materialism of his circumstances and longed for poverty and asceticism, for “the simple life”. He saw the rise of sexual promiscuity (with the implied dismissal of marriage), contraception, abortion, and euthanasia as signs of a decaying civilization with a Freudian death wish. He understood that the decline of Christian faith and respect for the Church was the source of these evils. He professed these insights publicly even as he continued to live according to his old habits.

Malcom plunged himself into research about this Jesus, this Man who haunted him all of his life and wouldn’t leave him any peace. The painful alienation and longing for God expressed in St. Augustine’s “Confessions” resonated with him acutely. He recalled with amazement the serene faith of the peasants he encountered in churches behind the iron curtain. He traveled to Lourdes and Palestine and was inspired by the faith of the Christian pilgrims, mostly of humble origins. He befriended a holy priest who ministered to the severely disabled. Finally, he sought out Mother Teresa, bewildered at this woman who accomplished so much with so little, who didn’t shrink from loving the unlovable, or touching the untouchable, and not for an idea or a set of abstract social principles, but for the love of a Person. The publicity-shy nun permitted him to make a television documentary about the works of her Missionaries of Charity, and to write a book about her – “Something Beautiful for God” – bringing her then obscure work to the attention of the world. Still unable to grasp Christ directly, Malcom was permitted to see Him through the life of a genuine saint, and in the faces of the world’s forgotten ones.

And then, in the twilight of his life, the old familiar pain of being an outsider looking in returned to him. He wanted what these Christians had, Who these Christians had, but didn’t know how to possess Him. He wanted to be counted among them, but still couldn’t bend the knee.

Malcom spent the remainder of his career defending and promoting a Christian worldview at every opportunity. Yet he remained apart. Malcom’s difficulties with the Catholic Church were a surprising combination of two things: 1) He was shocked and disappointed at the changes in the Church that seemed to have resulted from the Second Vatican Council. He saw religious life collapsing everywhere and moral teachings abandoned. 2) He was still a theological skeptic himself. Despite the post-conciliar liberalism that had no regard for doctrine, he was an honest man and would not join the Church if he didn’t accept its dogma. It’s not clear that he connected theological orthodoxy or liturgy with the moral precepts that concerned him. Nor is it clear that he worked very hard at theological understanding. This biographer suggests that Malcom was bored by theology. Although a reluctant moralist, he was fundamentally a poetic soul who seemed content with a mystical approach to the person of Jesus Christ.

Despite his distance from the Church, he began to call himself a Christian and tried to live like one. He established a daily prayer regimen. He gave up his womanizing, and further still, his drinking and smoking. He ate sparsely and became a vegetarian. He repaired his marriage to Kitty and tried to make things up to her. Their marriage became something beautiful and attractive, a hard-won prize. Their final years were spent in love, enjoying one another’s company and the company of friends, often reading the Pslams aloud to each other. Kitty would later write: “It is inevitable that in the course of time trouble and strife between man and wife should occur. This is for the most part due to our human vanity and egotism; but these differences can be overcome, and every reconciliation strengthens the bond of love.”

At long last, Malcom and Kitty received a letter from a respected priest and friend. In between formalities, the letter contained only one substantive line: “It is time.” Now 79 and 78 years old, respectively, this was all they needed. Malcom and Kitty Muggeridge formally entered the Catholic Church in November of 1982, finally at home and at peace. In July of 1990, Malcom suffered a crippling stroke. The state of his soul as a Christian penitent is manifest in the words he shouted that first night in the hospital: “Father, forgive me! Father, forgive me!” He died from complications four months later.

“A refuge from republican slavery in monarchical England” A Letter of Frederick Douglass from the United Kingdom (1st January 1846)


Frederick Douglass

MY DEAR FRIEND GARRISON: Up to this time, I have given no direct expression of the views, feelings, and opinions which I have formed, respecting the character and condition of the people of this land. I have refrained thus, purposely. I wish to speak advisedly, and in order to do this, I have waited till, I trust, experience has brought my opinions to an intelligent maturity. I have been thus careful, not because I think what I say will have much effect in shaping the opinions of the world, but because whatever of influence I may possess, whether little or much, I wish it to go in the right direction, and according to truth. I hardly need say that, in speaking of Ireland, I shall be influenced by no prejudices in favor of America. I think my circumstances all forbid that. I have no end to serve, no creed to…

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Yes, Brooke Baldwin, pornography is worse than assault weapons

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The hysterical and unhinged Brooke Baldwin, purportedly a CNN “news” anchor, probably represents the views of a good many Americans in this segment. Nevermind that she crudely mischaracterizes the facts; let’s just focus on her misplaced outrage. How is it possible, she asks incredulously, for anyone to think that pornography is a greater public health crisis than assault weapons?

It’s very simple: pornography destroys more lives, with far more collateral damage, than assault weapons ever could. Pornography fuels a host of criminal activity from sex crimes to serial homicide. Pornography is strongly linked to political violence and radical ideologies from Nazism to Islamism. Pornography destroys marriages and families and nurtures a culture of promiscuity, resulting in a tidal wave of abortion, post-abortion emotional trauma, mental illness, abuse of women and children, and millions of fatherless young men whose numerous pathologies include higher rates of suicide, drug abuse, and criminal violence (such as, for example, shooting up schools with assault weapons). Most tragically, and quite unlike assault weapons, pornography unfailingly extinguishes the life of charity in the souls of its consumers.

Whatever one thinks about gun violence as a political issue, pornography is by far the more dangerous and urgent public health threat. And unlike the ownership of firearms, there is no moral or constitutional justification for allowing the dissemination of pornography on any level. Nothing much will change when it comes to America’s social ills – including gun violence – until the truth about pornography is frankly acknowledged and its proliferation effectively suppressed.

The discipline of understanding


My oldest son is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College, a “great books” school that rejects textbooks and lectures. Students read only the great books themselves, and the classroom utilizes the discussion method. The professors, who are called “tutors”, are present only to facilitate the discussion and keep it on track. Furthermore – and this surprised me at first – the college discourages reading outside sources as class preparation. The idea is that one is supposed to grapple with the text itself, not someone else’s interpretation of the text. Students are trained to ask “what does the text say?” and “what does the author mean?” without prejudice.

When I first attended one of their junior classes as a parent-guest, I found myself extremely impatient with the discussion. I had the answers, or so I thought, and wondered why the students would spend so much time on a single sentence when the meaning was obvious to me.

I have since been humbled. The meaning was only “obvious” to me because of the prejudices in my head derived from other sources and my own rash judgments. These students, by their junior year, were mastering the discipline of putting all of that aside for the sake of authentic understanding. What does the text say? What doesn’t it say? What can we learn from the context? What is the author’s perspective? How do we really know? Furthermore they were forced to listen to each other, to be challenged and corrected, and sometimes embarrassed by their own mistakes. By their junior year these young scholars were thinking clearly and methodically, choosing their words very carefully, and best of all, in true Thomistic fashion, interpreting each other’s words in the most reasonable sense possible. It was a beautiful sight to behold.

Bandits and beggars

“The Church … considers the action of this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in their respective spheres; she would rather save the soul of one single wild bandit of Calabria, or a whining beggar of Palermo, than draw a hundred lines of railroad through the length and breadth of Italy, or carry out a sanitary reform, in its fullest details, in every city of Sicily, except so far as these great national works tended to some spiritual good beyond them.” – Blessed John Henry Newman

(Excerpted from “The Kingship of Christ and the Anti-Kingdom of Modernity” by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski)

Critical thinking, observation, and virtue

In a recent conversation about the components of critical thinking, it was noted that the first necessary skill is observation, even prior to that of logic, and that one’s powers of observation are largely dependent upon virtue. I thought it a remarkable insight: critical thought – defined as the ability to get at the truth of things –  ultimately depends upon the virtue of the thinker. The powers of human reason are necessary but not sufficient, however well trained they might be.

How might this play out? Let’s take the following logical syllogism:

The Church teaches that deliberately taking a human life is, by definition, the sin of murder;
Capital punishment is the deliberate taking of a human life; 
Therefore, capital punishment is murder.

The syllogism itself works just fine, does it not? The logic is sound. The conclusion follows perfectly from the premises. And yet, the conclusion is false because the major premise is false. The major premise is not something derived from logical reasoning, but through simple observation. The Church does not, in fact, teach that deliberately taking a human life is murder in every case. The person making the argument was incorrect in his primary observation.

Now, it is certainly possible to be innocently wrong in one’s observations. We should never assume that getting an observation wrong automatically means a lack of virtue. But here’s where a lack of virtue might compromise one’s observations: confirmation bias. We fallen creatures tend to see what we want to see, what we expect to see, what works to our advantage somehow, and what makes sense of our preconceived ideas. Without virtue we’re not all that concerned about the facts. In the case of the syllogism concerning capital punishment:

  • Pride could lead to misinterpreting Church teaching – whether consciously or unconsciously – due to one’s personal beliefs or ideological commitments.
  • Irreverence could lead to treating the Church as a merely human institution whose moral teachings are malleable and in constant need of updating.
  • Rash judgment could lead to regurgitating something one has heard or read without due diligence.
  • Human respect could lead to distorting Church teaching in order to win an argument.
  • Un-repented sin could lead to minimizing the gravity of capital offenses as deserving of capital punishment.
  • Lack of charity could lead to blindly opposing the views of others merely because of who happens to hold them.

Every argument depends upon one or more premises that are essentially unprovable by means of argument. They are simply assumed to be true by observation or the claims of authority.  In order for these premises to be reliable, they must be approached with humility, integrity, discernment, and self-knowledge.