From Hoboken to Eternity
The Value of Catholic Traditionalism in the Life of One Traditionalist
(An unpublished memoir written October, 2008)1965-1969, the years I attended high school, were among the most portentous in the entirety of Church History. Although born a Roman Catholic, and remaining a practicing one throughout that entire period, I have absolutely no recollection of my personal religious thoughts or inner life at the time. Oh, I do remember a few externals relating to those heady days of preparation for 1970's "renewal": sitting in a back pew with a friend, parodying one of the new, hideous hymns that we were expected to belt out with previously unimagined spiritual gusto; discovering that the class troublemakers were now considered heroes at the parish post-confirmation CCD classes; hearing clergy and laity say that this or that favorite sin was no longer an obstacle to going to communion. But try as I may, I cannot call up a single trace of any heart-felt reaction to the impending ecclesiastical disaster.
Nothing whatsoever seems to have interested me in those teenage years except for the fact that just at that moment modern American life was showering one after the other of its hitherto unknown, henceforth unmatchable, and rationally unquestionable gifts upon me. I was the recognized "star" at Indian Hills High School in Oakland, New Jersey---Class President for Life and, as my senior yearbook confidently told me, Most Likely to Succeed as well. My grades assured me entrance into top-notch universities, from which I saw myself one day emerging with an enviable law degree. This parchment, put both to energetic private use as well as public service would inevitably propel me into early riches, Congress (preferably the Senate) and eventually the White House. The future was infallibly mine, with the only problem being the embarrass de choix among the fruits that a free and happy society, the last and best hope of Mankind, presented me.
But during my first semester at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., this vision of the Earthly Paradise swiftly faded. An unexpected and thoroughgoing homesickness laid me low. To make matters worse, Georgetown's superb freshman academic program made it clear to me just how little I really knew in comparison to what I had been told that I knew, causing questions to pop into my head that had never troubled me before. Did I honestly want to be a lawyer? To what use would I put the riches that I presumed would flow like plunder from Persepolis into my pockets? What would I actually do on my first day as Head of State aside from wave to my admirers?
It did not take me long before I realized that I had no answer to any of these queries, and that, in fact, I had not the faintest idea whether I was preparing myself for heaven or for hell. The upshot was that by the end of the semester I had fifteen decent college credits under my belt and a one-way ticket on a Greyhound Bus back to the Port Authority Terminal. My stomach twisted into a million knots as the driver hit the Jersey Turnpike and I wondered what in the world would possibly come next.
Several months in the commercial world taught me that neither stomach knots would be loosened nor queries answered while working at my father's toy store. Hence, a decision to pick up the pieces of my aborted college education and carry them to Drew University in nearby Morris County. And it was through the experiences that some of the faculty of that secularized Methodist institution provided that the darkness began to dissipate. As it did, it threw a lot more light onto the back wall of the cave that I never imagined I was inhabiting...and would never have found a way to escape from on my own steam.
It was in the Hoboken Train Station, waiting to return to Drew after a day in Manhattan, that a powerful intellectual and spiritual freight engine bearing "every good and perfect gift" barreled directly into me. One of my professors, the late and sorely lamented James Lo Gerfo, had insisted upon a reading of St. Augustine's Confessions for his course on Early Medieval History. There I stood, under the departure announcement board, doing my routine academic duty, perfunctorily underlining some of Augustine's meditations, when a stray thought took possession of my mind, heart, and soul: what if these words were meant for my life instead of being meant just for my semester history grade?
That idea, quite frankly, made me sick to my stomach. Familiar Jersey Turnpike knots began to form again. Remembering their painfulness, but helpless to untie them and "return to normalcy", I took the first opportunity to run to the professor responsible for my condition and explain to him my discomfit. He then made certain that the journey that had begun in Hoboken did not end for me only at Drew.
Not that Drew itself was a bad place to pause for a while before changing from the local to the express. For it was here that I also gained the invaluable guidance of James Pain, a Methodist cleric and Chairman of the Religion Department. Dr. Pain had a profound interest in the search for God and a scholar's rigor in teaching the history of Christian belief and practice. Not only did he introduce me to a systematic study of Roman Catholic doctrine unmarred by dubious "signs of the time" and irrational swooning over the mysteries of the Omega Point. He also organized the semester abroad at Oxford in 1972 which led to my sojourn in that blessed environment for five further years of doctoral work. Even more importantly for this little essay, it was Dr. Pain who, during that first semester abroad, assigned me a paper on religious life in Britain. This brought me to a Tridentine Mass at Westminster Cathedral, an idle question to a member of the congregation regarding who could best inform me about current conditions of the Catholic Church in England, and the beginning of my thirty two year friendship with one of the greatest lay heroes of our time, the late Michael Davies.
But I am now getting far ahead of my story. So much more had already happened before that meeting with Michael in his suburban London house, all of which prepared me to appreciate what it was he had to say, about painful developments in the liturgy in particular. For in the months after my Hoboken experience, Professor Lo Gerfo had introduced me to two institutions which were to be central to my further spiritual and intellectual formation.
One of these was the two-year old Roman Forum, created in 1968 to defend Pope Paul VI's encyclical letter, Humanae vitae, and offering monthly lectures by Drs. Dietrich von Hildebrand and William Marra at a packed Keating Hall on Fordham University's Rose Hill Campus. The other was the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, whose summer schools provided access to the teaching of an extremely wide range of conservative academics, including those espousing the rich political and social thought of the European Catholic Right. Exposure to these organizations meant that I was present when von Hildebrand electrified the audience in the Bronx with his fervent call for a determined petitioning of Rome for the restoration of the "old mass". It also meant that I heard Dr. Thomas Molnar, one of the most lucid and courageous of the ISI speakers, when he hammered at the dangers coming from the school of Leo Strauss and the first appearance in American rightist circles of what no one yet knew would some day dominate it under the name of "neo-conservatism".
Those years after 1970 were exciting ones indeed, and the reason for the excitement was the fact that I found himself in the middle of the budding Catholic Traditionalist Movement. Discovery and embrace of that Movement had come without my looking for it or expecting it, through personal confusion and happy accident alone. Nevertheless, it proved itself to be of central importance to the shaping of my life and the confirmation of my Faith---all of which indicates to me that I was led to Traditionalism through God's Providence.
Traditionalism proved its superabundant worth to me in four ways over the following decades, to begin with by teaching me the difference between a serious, open-minded, joyful intellectual endeavor on the one hand, and illogical, nostalgic, willful and closed-minded ventures on the other.
My introduction to the movement came through the influence of an eclectic mixture of Platonists and Thomists, with the Platonists, like Dietrich von Hildebrand and William Marra, in the ascendant. These men were not Neo-Platonists espousing some gnostic vision of contact with ever-greater corruption the further down on the Great Chain of Being from spiritual to material life one descended. Rather, they were Christian Platonists in love with God and man, emphasizing the goodness of Creation and the immense sorrow of the Fall. Most importantly, they were devout men who called attention to the supernatural light penetrating into every part of nature through the Incarnation, and the glorious role each of nature's elements, from the lowest to the highest, was called upon to play in the divine plan of "transformation of all things in Christ".
Such a teaching, fed in the years to come by a reading of works like Fr. Emile Mersch's The Whole Christ, and Werner Jaeger's study of Greek Paideia, introduced me to many truths: that nothing was superfluous to the task of raising the individual to God; that one needed solid theological, philosophical, political, economic, and aesthetic cooperation with supernatural grace, all in the context of authoritative social life, beginning with the family and moving upwards, if one were to succeed in this most exalted of enterprises; that men and women who really believed in the Incarnation and its consequences required a spirit of openness to sifting through all that nature had offered in the past---and might yet offer through unexpected future developments; and, finally, that all such labors demanded acceptance of one supreme condition: the necessity of keeping one's eyes focused firmly on the Christ responsible for God and nature's bounty; i.e., on the Christ who walked the earth and on that same Christ continued in His Mystical Body, the Church.
Hence the importance of the Traditional Mass, which von Hildebrand's books, such as Liturgy and Personality, made so wonderfully clear. Here one had the supreme "tool" for sanctification, with everything supernatural and natural ordered according to the proper hierarchy of values, beginning with the fact that it was aimed primarily at the worship of God, from which all things useful to mankind---all tools---only secondarily flow. All had its place in such worship---- simplicity and grandeur, silence and public acclamation, humble recognition of unworthiness and rejoicing in superabundant love of the Almighty---in a dramatic and aesthetically brilliant presentation of man's relationship with his Creator, appealing simultaneously to eyes, ears, senses, mind, heart, and soul.
Tampering with such magnificence, under the guidance of a spirit that put the secondary teaching function of the Mass---and, hence, the service of man---above the truly overriding consideration of what most fittingly adores the Godhead, was thus the most certain means of failing to achieve both purposes: that of praising what is above and instructing what is below. The more I understood this, the more the unfolding liturgical nightmare in the Roman Church became unbearable to me. My friend and I were instinctively right to laugh at those ridiculous hymns in our Novus Ordo training sessions after all!
Luckily, my courses with Dr. Pain back at Drew had drawn my attention to the many Eastern Catholic Churches of the New York metropolitan area and the possibility of living the solid, Incarnation-drunk liturgical life stolen from the Roman rite by a misguided "reform". Before I knew it, I was singing the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom myself, and bringing my favorite Ruthenian priest to Drew to expose others to its beauty.
Still, as noted above, the years after 1970 acquainted me with two, contrasting, closed-minded approaches to wisdom as well---one that was primarily illogical and nostalgic, and the other determinedly willful in spirit. The first became ever more noticeable as Catholic Traditionalism and Conservatism parted their ways; the other, through wrenching daily contact with the "mainstream" Church and the development of its understanding of "renewal".
Dietrich von Hildebrand had begun the Roman Forum in union with the Catholic weekly newspaper, The Wanderer, and in conjunction with the creation of Catholics United for the Faith. This alliance was broken due to von Hildebrand's insistence on the need to criticize not the validity but the failings and inferiority of the Novus Ordo in relation to the Traditional Roman Rite of Mass. His former partners, Conservatives as opposed to Traditionalists, believed that loyal, orthodox Catholics were obliged to defend the reform of the liturgy, and did so, often enthusiastically. In the process, they accepted more and more changes that they themselves had bitterly fought when the revolution began.
It struck me that the conservatives' attitude concerning contemporary issues was in open and illogical battle with the historical traditions and saintly lives that they continued to praise...and which I honestly think, in their heart of hearts, they continued to prefer. Conservative grasping at bits and pieces of the ancient heritage---a Kyrie sung in Latin here, an old hymn there---in the midst of the general debacle seemed to me to "miss the point", and reflect precisely that "nostalgic" mentality that our common progressive enemies wrongly accused Traditionalists of nurturing. Traditionalist concern was never for Latin or one specific gesture or another in the Offertory as such; it was a concern for an organic liturgical whole aimed primarily at the adoration of God.
Everything cherished outside of that whole was, at best, a pious nostalgia; something akin to a warm memory of a top hat, still worn with remembered pride, but now together with a new and absurd uniform of torn jeans and platform shoes. And this same illogical, nostalgic spirit seemed to reign everywhere that conservative Catholics of varied types congregated.
Willfulness was to be found in the "mainstream", expressed by the progressive ideologues choreographing the danse macabre that Catholic life in the 1970's had become. I simply found no means of engaging a discussion with Whirling Dervishes in the grip of renewal fever. All of their man-centered activities were defended by them with reference to the obvious guidance of a Holy Spirit whom I was said to despise; a Holy Spirit who had suddenly and inexplicably exchanged His friendship for Catholic Tradition for a Shiva-like passion for its annihilation. Mockery and distortion of Traditionalist arguments were the unchanging weapons in the progressive arsenal in those days, one favorite being the response to my justification for the old liturgy with the claim that I should then want my sermons to be delivered in Latin as well. It was clear to me that progressives did not seek assent to their positions through rational discourse; instead, they had passionately embraced the road to victory through the Triumph of the Will. "The Spirit and the Zeitgeist are One, and we are Its unquestionable Prophet!" was their war cry. And anyone doubtful regarding the validity of their sutra had to efface himself before its ineffably beauty and keep his bloody mouth shut.
As far as I was concerned, the only thing solidly intellectual and rationally useful that came out of my contact with the forces of renewal was the growth of my own library. For the Holy Zeitgeist had directed church after church, priest after priest, seminary after seminary, literally to toss into the rubbish bin beautiful altar missals, breviaries, copies of the Church Fathers, and major theological, philosophical, and historical treatises. They certainly were following a precedent started in the Age of Reason in doing this. After all, the eighteenth century Enlightened Absolutist, Joseph II of Austria, had filled the foundations of state buildings in a similar spirit of Spring Cleaning, loading them up with the precious texts of suppressed Jesuit libraries. In any case, I scavenged the rubbish bins and swelled my shelves with all the discarded nonsense of nearly two millennia of Catholic thought.
Another thing that my Incarnation-drunk Platonist teachers had taught me was the crucial importance of examining the whole of the historical record, sacred and profane, in order to understand how Catholics had sifted the good from the bad in nature in past ages. This, they said, would help me to learn which paths to follow and which pitfalls to avoid in the future if I wished to live a Christian life in a Christian civilization. It was through his knowledge of the historical sources---in this case, Vatican One and its aftermath---that von Hildebrand was aware of the validity of his own nuanced position regarding Church law. Examination of the sources made it crystal clear that the Pope had the authority to impose the changed liturgy on the Church, and we Catholics the duty to recognize its validity. On the other hand, it just as firmly showed that believers also had the right and the responsibility to criticize this action and beg that it be recognized as a mistake and overturned when convinced of its dangers.
By now, I was deeply interested in exactly how the Church had managed to get itself in the mess that I saw poisoning everything around me, and what it was that the faithful had done to emerge from similar crises in the past. Therefore, I set to work in Oxford on a doctoral dissertation that might satisfy my curiosity and enable me to contribute to the progress of the Traditionalist Movement in days to come. Step by step, this led me to a study of Catholic reactions to the Enlightenment, the problem of Naturalism, and the ravages of the French Revolution. It also brought me to investigate that deep fountain of lay and clerical interest in the Incarnation and its consequences that burst forth after 1848, feeding the Syllabus of Errors and Catholic Social Teaching, and providing the waters of Catholic speculation from which von Hildebrand himself had drunk. Step by step, this also pulled me towards my second, totally unexpected example of the importance of the message taught by the Catholic Traditionalist Movement: its effectiveness in showing how to deal with the reality of the devil.
When I finally found the theme for my doctoral dissertation, I was happily ensconced at St. Edmund Hall in Oxford. I lived in a room on Longwall Street overlooking the Deer Park at Magdalen College, and had worked out a routine that seemed destined to make me into the perfect Renaissance man. I labored each day at the Bodleian Library; took my exercise on Christ Church Meadow; enjoyed drinks and dinner with my friends in historic pubs; listened to the opera and committed the arias to memory before retiring for the night. Lent of 1975 was approaching, and I planned to cap my Florentine routine with a season of penitence that would enable me to enjoy the Easter Feast appropriately.
And then a crisis hit; an existential crisis of the sort that I had read about in Kierkegaard, but never prepared for facing myself. As with the experience in Hoboken, this crisis began with a sudden thought taking possession of me. The thought this time was of a saint who died and discovered...nothing. More specifically, it was the thought of a saint who could not even really discover nothing because of the total end of his consciousness that came along with his demise.
In short, I was seized with the fear that there was no God; that I had come from nowhere and was headed for nowhere. If this were true, if the Faith were vain, it was not just heaven that would be lost. There could be no enjoyment in even the simplest act of living here on earth. If eating, drinking, and being merry were not connected with a final supernatural purpose, none of them had the slightest significance for me whatsoever.
This was the most miserable experience that I have ever had to date. I was paralyzed, and the paralysis lasted quite some time, mitigated only by two lifelines. One was a mechanical commitment to continuing my doctoral work that allowed me to escape from confronting the vision of absolute nothingness for eight hours each day. The other was the inexplicable realization that every time I actually consulted my Reason, this never failed to lead me to two conclusions: that there was indeed a God, and that if there were a God, that Catholicism in and of itself was worthy of the act of Faith I had once made in it. I could not escape the conclusion that my problem was that I could not bring myself to give credence to what my Reason repeatedly told me to be true. I needed to find a way to believe what I knew, and then proceed from that knowledge back into my faith.
Three friends---Dietrich Warns, a fellow student from Germany, a good Franciscan priest whose name I never learned, and Dr. William Marra's wife, Marcelle--- finally showed me the way out of this abominable Black Hole. All of them insisted that I had come face to face with the reality of the devil, and the only thing that could effectively fight his call to nothingness was...everything. Everything around me, all of which was indeed real, was, they argued, continually speaking to me in varied ways of aspects of the message of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that my Reason was willing to accept and pull upwards towards the thought of God. Everything around me was important to my spiritual cure, and nothing could be considered superfluous to it. I had now only to use this natural bounty on behalf of supernatural Faith.
After struggling with their advice for a while, I recognized that these friends were reinforcing exactly what I had learned in the Traditionalist Movement from the very outset: that Christ's Incarnation confirms the value of God's Creation; that all of nature is a powerful aid in the raising of the mind and soul to a desire for the supernatural; and that all of nature transformed in Christ was of an even greater---an infinitely greater---assistance.
So I dived back into the fullness of Christ, both through all that could in some manner be connected with Him naturally, as well as all that He was in and of Himself: the beauty of Oxford, Europe and Catholic culture as a whole; the wonders of the intellectual life; the warmth of friendship with others seeking the Truth; prayer; the life of an age-old liturgy which, through the Eastern Catholics and the English Indult, was mercifully available to me and provided me my daily spiritual food.
When I had regained my Faith, I regained the conviction of the value of my Reason. When I regained my Reason, I regained Reason's aid in confirming my Faith. And my Faith and Reason together warned me never again to abandon that message of the Incarnation and its consequences that Catholic Traditionalism alone had taught me to study and nurture; never again to abandon all the tools that had been shown historically to push men into the arms of Christ and keep them there.
By 1978, with my doctorate finished and my sense of how Catholics had fallen into their current predicament deepened, Oxford had become more dear to me than life itself. This alone would have made my departure for anywhere past the Ring Road quite difficult. Nevertheless, my return to the United States became particularly unpleasant when I began experiencing problems not only in explaining what I had learned along the Thames, but even in merely beginning a conversation about the life-and-death contrast of an Incarnation-minded Catholicism with a naturalist worldview.
Most painful of all was the fact that this difficulty was proving to be true with many Traditionalists as well as Conservatives and progressive ideologues, not to speak of colleagues, high school friends, and family members. Horrible to recount, I found that the same trouble was manifesting itself with each subsequent summer return to Europe and contact with Europeans outside my rather rarefied circle of former Oxford comrades. Chance (or Providence) guided me to an explanation for this phenomenon, and this explanation, which also came through the aid of Traditionalist thought, confirmed the value of Catholic Traditionalism for me yet a third time.
As soon as I returned from Oxford in 1978, Dr. Marra had begun to call upon my services as lecturer at the Roman Forum. One day, he commissioned a topic for a talk concerned with problems at Catholic University. As I developed this, it transmuted into a study of the Americanist Crisis in the Church in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Confrontation of Americanism with the critique of its character that I found, once again, in the Incarnation-based thinkers to which the Traditionalist Movement had directed my attention, was startling. It unveiled the peculiar nature of the anti-intellectual, materialist, "pragmatic", but non-violent and seemingly "friendly" way in which the Enlightenment had made its progress in both Britain and the United States... to the most effective detriment of the Catholic cause known to history.
My study of Americanism helped to open my eyes to the explanation of many things: why my elementary and high school education had aimed me away from any serious investigation of the questions most important to life in general and towards narrow, mindless, materialist goals; why "pointless" intellectual discussions were generally avoided by American society; why both Faith and Reason failed to have a social impact; how a naturalist and revolutionary principle could find a way to masquerade as a solid bulwark of Tradition and the essence of patriotism; how "pragmatism" and the need to avoid "divisiveness" were used to prevent people from finding their way out of a spiritual dead end and back to Catholic sanity; how a Europe, fearful that opposition to an American-inspired Pluralism would be construed as sympathy for Nazism and Communism or simply outright insanity, was also won for the cause of mindlessness.
Walter Matt, the founding editor of The Remnant, was so eager that I continue with the critique of Americanism that this lecture had begun that he insisted I publish a brochure on the subject; hence the start of what is now a regular collaboration with that journal. "Everybody in the world is infected with this Americanist virus", Dr. Marra told me. "Your life's work has been laid out. I don't envy you."
Such foreboding predictions proved to be miserably accurate, especially with respect to the strong hint of possible frustrations in my work. Filled with missionary zeal, I initially managed to intrigue a rather wide range of people and organizations regarding my labors, thus obtaining invitations to speak almost everywhere...once. After that, oversized persona non grata mats were laid at many a formerly friendly door. Bit by bit, the invitations degenerated from microphones at elegant Opus Dei parlors with wine and cheese receptions to those at suburban firehouses and out of the way catering halls with snacks of stale donuts and bad coffee.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this drudgery was the fact that Catholic Traditionalists themselves were often among the least responsive to my arguments. Rather than being willing to listen to proofs that Americanism and Pluralism were the most effective tools for leading them into acceptance of the Enlightenment naturalism that lay behind our contemporary crisis, liturgical as well as theological, they often waved me away as a dangerously treasonous kook. Instead, they took refuge in explanations of the ecclesiastical cancer accurately identifying one or the other head of the revolutionary hydra that had affected them personally, while neglecting and even cooperating with other manifestations of that very same beast in different realms.
Moreover, separation from the mainstream of life, while totally understandable, seemed to me to be making Traditionalists stranger and sadder rather than wiser; hence the expansion of the influence of those who thought that they could deal with the disaster by acting like Protestant atomists in little houses on the prairie; of other, Rousseau-like anarchists committed to "unschooling" their children; of pseudo-fascists speaking of the Triumph of the Will and blaring out hard rock on car radios while claiming to be militants determined to crush the menace of liberal theology. Meanwhile, despite what one can now in retrospect perceive, hopes for official Church support for the revival of the Traditional Mass appeared to be ever more groundless as the '70's turned to the '80's. "The movement", as one of my friends quietly sobbed, "is stationary".
By the mid-1980's, I began to wake up each morning thinking I was dead and in hell. People my age in New York City were starting to make Big Time Bucks, buy luscious apartments, and get full view boxes at the Opera. They would shout hello to me from their limousines on their way to Lincoln Center while I sat on my tenement stoop drinking jug wine and listening to fading, crackling, spliced tapes of Don Giovanni. Most Likely to Succeed indeed! Traditionalists were losers and I was one of them. Tradition, above all else, was supposed to be tied in with a normal human life. What was normal about the way that I was living? Surely, it was time for a return to real normalcy! "Back to mainstream living!" became my motto.
And so I took a vacation from the stationary Movement and its seemingly hellish frustrations. Articles for The Remnant lapsed into silence. My trips back to Europe turned away from contacts with exotic traditionalist cells and towards the Riviera, for basic, healthy, physical exercise. I took to jitterbugging rather than lecturing, preparing gourmet meals from scratch with fresh ingredients rather than polishing notes lambasting Cardinal Gibbons and Bishop Ireland. In my hunger for normalcy and longing for a return to the mainstream of life, I even did something I never would have dreamed possible just a short time before---I abandoned my Eastern Catholic churches and became a lector for the Novus Ordo at my local Greenwich Village parish, Our Lady of Pompeii.
Not that I cut off all my ties with the Movement in those years of backsliding. My companions were still almost exclusively Traditionalists, thus giving my escapade the telltale tinge of a day of hooky from a school which would inevitably call me back to its classrooms. Moreover, aside from Dr. Marra, whose summons to lecture for the Roman Forum I could never turn down, another force entered onto the scene to help to keep me honest during this winter of my discontent. This was the SSPX, in the person of the then Fr. Richard Williamson at the Society's seminary in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
Now although I had always been a deep admirer of Archbishop Lefebvre, I had never been a parishioner at a Society Chapel. Nor have I ever become one since, although I attend Mass at St. Nicholas when in Paris and at other SSPX churches as need arises. I never attacked the Society's path to dealing with the nightmare of the late twentieth century Church. I just had a different path myself. It always seemed probable to me that there could be more than one return path to ecclesiastical sanity. Moreover, I was and remain one of those people who has often been quite stunned by some of the things that the now Bishop Williamson has said regarding the Church and the world situation.
Nevertheless, his intellectual curiosity, his pastoral solicitude for my soul, and his personal friendship pulled me back from playing with a pointless existence that could easily have slid into the despair that once wore me down so miserably in Oxford. He actually did want to hear what I said about Americanism and Pluralism, and invited me to talk to his seminarians about its dangers. More than once, and in pleasant settings to boot! Further still, he wanted me to lecture not only on contemporary evils, but on my own field of expertise, on Church History in general, as well. This forced me back to the sources of the Tradition for another and still more comprehensive "refresher course".
Once this refresher course began, I quickly had to admit that even if the Movement were all too stationary, the mainstream was hurtling yet father into Outer Space on its journey to nowhere. Really, no matter how much I had wanted to be "part of something", and recognized that Traditionalists were suffering due to their isolation, I never could flee from the fact that the world at large was nothing other than acceptable society's Twilight Zone. Grateful as I was to the fine pastor of my parish church, which was infinitely saner than most around me, it just could not become my permanent spiritual home. Attendance at family funerals in that ecclesiastical wilderness west of the Hudson, outside relatively conservative New York, showed that liturgies were degenerating at an ever-greater pace. The presence of pianos in the sanctuary had begun to give what ought to have been a somber setting the flavor of a tacky cocktail lounge. Each time I spoke with rarely seen relatives and old acquaintances at these events, whole new chunks of doctrine, morality, and history seemed to have disappeared entirely from their collective memories.
All this meant that when Ecclesia Dei adflicta was finally published, and St. Agnes Church in New York City decided to take advantage of it to restore the Traditional Mass to its Sunday liturgy, I needed only one week to "jump ship" and exchange my lectern for a St. Andrew's Daily Missal. Within a fortnight I had donned an acolyte's cassock. A short time after that, I was writing for The Remnant again, renewing my contacts with Michael Davies, accepting lecture invitations, and, eventually, working---till they, alas, tired of me---with Una Voce America.
This does not mean that the situation in the Traditionalist world had perceptibly improved in the years of my vacation, from 1985-1988. In some respects, the same partial explanations for the collapse of Christendom were being proclaimed, rehashed, and commented upon even more loudly, insistently, and pedantically than ever before. And the exacerbation of these evils that would come from uncontrolled blogging were as yet still lurking, unimagined, in the technological underbrush.
But it was now that Catholic Traditionalism made its fourth self-validating appearance in my life. This time it appeared to give me advice regarding how to deal with the problems of Catholic Traditionalism itself! My recent "refresher course" in the fullness of the Tradition, urged upon me by Bishop Williamson, had given me the final push to listen once more to what it was that that Tradition had to teach. Traditionalism again reminded me that one had to "dive in" and use all the natural and supernatural tools available to a man if he were to defeat dangerous influences of each and every sort. This meant that dealing with the continuing "problem" of Traditionalists was, in fact, nothing other than a variant of dealing with the existential crisis troubling me at Oxford. My fellow Traditionalists had to be exposed to more than a lecture, more than an intellectual argument, in order to be won over to an understanding of the evils of an Americanist and Pluralist world. They needed to have the totality of Catholic Faith, History, and culture placed before their minds, souls, and body to make the point that my mere words could not describe. My duty was to find a way to create a holistic environment in which they could live, for a time, in a microcosm of a truly Catholic order. Then, by confronting what they experienced and learned with their ordinary daily reality and its erroneous teaching, they might come to make the same kinds of judgments respecting the deleterious effects on Christendom of Americanism, Pluralism, and the non-violent, "friendly", Anglo-Saxon path to Enlightenment that I had made.
Dr. Marra gave me the means to move forward with this project when he decided, in 1991, to put me in charge of the Roman Forum. This allowed me to gather the funds to create an annual "Catholic Commune" which, like the Chartres Pilgrimage, whose treasures I discovered about the same moment, could shape a "time out of time" leaving an indelible imprint on those who participated in it. I had tried something similar, on a much smaller scale, in Venice, in 1985, just before I threw my hands up and went on vacation from the Movement, leaving the project stillborn. This time, the concept was to come together in a more lasting and fruitful form.
Once again, a chance (or providential) visit to the Institute of Christ the King at Gricigliano in Tuscany, introduced me to Cardinal Alfons Stickler, and the beauty of the Solemn Pontifical Mass of the Traditional Rite. Cardinal Stickler, with the encouragement and aid of the Institute's superior, Mgr. Gilles Wach, accepted the Roman Forum's invitation to come to St. Agnes in February of 1992 to inaugurate the work of our "Catholic Commune"---a seminar inspired by Dietrich von Hildebrand's "Incarnation-drunk" vision. This seminar, meeting annually at Gardone Riviera, on Lake Garda in northern Italy, would allow Traditionalists a chance to live a "time out of time" where Catholic principles reigned supreme; where they could eat, drink, sing, play, study, and worship, as Traditional Catholics, with all that their heritage had to offer them, placed at the center of their existence. In New York, I had only myself to count on to lecture and appeal to the intellect; in Gardone, I had all of nature and supernature as my senior partners. If nothing else would break through a parochial spirit limiting Traditionalist understanding of contemporary reality, I was certain that this could do so. If exposure to the light could have an impact on a spirit as weak and wobbly as mine, surely it could make the same impression more speedily and firmly on others made of stronger stuff.
In the summer of 1982, I found myself in Paris with an unexpected sum of money at my disposal. I decided I wanted to live a week enjoying everything that the Ville lumiere could legitimately offer me. Up to that point, I had been traveling on the cheap and was in a desperate state of personal disrepair. Once I bought a pair of shoes without holes in them, I realized how ridiculous my worn out trousers appeared. When this problem was remedied, my wretched shirt clearly stood out in all its misery and had to be replaced. That done, I quickly perceived how badly I needed a decent haircut. Everything bodily in order, I marched off to my first museum and immediately recognized that I was terribly, terribly lonely. In short, my decision to enjoy Paris properly caused me to see that much more work was required of me than I at first had bargained for.
When I hopped on the train from Hoboken in 1970 I first got off at the stop marked Catholic Traditionalism. Here I met serious men of joyful spirit; men who understood that all of us make mistakes and backslide in our efforts to do the Good and take possession of the Beautiful; men who emanated a truly noble sense of humor about their own limitations as they played their part in the Drama of Truth.
What my Incarnation-drunk Catholic Traditionalists taught me when I arrived at their destination was that Tradition and Traditionalism were not an end in themselves. They were valuable precisely because they were always a way station; a way station to Christ, to Christ's Mystical Body, and to an understanding of just how much every aspect of grace and nature must be nurtured and loved as a means of leading us to the light of the Beatific Vision.
In other words, embracing Tradition was like embracing Paris, and coming swiftly to the realization that one's work had just begun when the initial decision to open his arms was taken. The trip begun in Hoboken had to continue ever onward and ever upward. To turn my back on this lengthier journey would be to abandon life with the Father of Lights and eternal joy. To turn my back on the Traditionalism that inspired it would end with life in an arrogant, unenlightened, and ultimately unnatural nature left to its own self-limiting devices; to eternity in a self-created hell.
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