Volume > Issue > Last Things

Last Things

By David Mills | September 2020
David Mills, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Editor of Hour of Our Death (www.hourofourdeath.org). He writes for several Catholic and other publications, and writes the “Catholic Sense” column for diocesan newspapers.

A priest friend was with us, the friends I call the “pub group,” in collar. He’s what’s usually called “conservative.” Our lively, bibulous, long conversation ran across politics, theology, culture, art. I don’t remember what anyone said, except that it was a friends’ conversation, serious and light both.

After he left, the waitress came over and asked who he was. A young woman in a bohemian outfit, she had several tattoos and, I think, piercings as well. We told her. “I could go to his church,” she said.

Not what any of us expected. She said she’d been listening to our conversation and said something about his kindness, in the way he talked about the things we talked about. What he had said would not have been what you would expect her to accept, but she felt drawn to the way he had said it. I think what she meant is that he talked about hard things in terms of the people affected.

An unexpected witness. He wasn’t speaking as a man being overheard by others. He isn’t one of those extrovert ministers to whom people naturally warm, whatever he says. He’s more Germanic. The young woman had been drawn by his charity.

It says something about the waitress as well. She had to listen, and listen to someone different from her across a cultural divide, and get past the visual and verbal symbols (that collar, those religious words) to hear what was really being said. She had to show real charity herself, to hear charity.

Someone who doesn’t write much, or well, sent me an article to edit, with an apology for his not being a good writer. “I try to put down what’s in me,” he said. I appreciated his humility, but didn’t want him to underestimate his gifts.

I wrote him that as an editor, I loved writers who put down what’s in them. (With the exception of those who don’t have anything inside them to put down. They’re a problem.)

Writers who straightforwardly share what they know are easy to edit because they give you good material to work with. Each idea is a solid thing, like a brick. You can pick it up and put it where you want it. They might not arrange the bricks all that well, but you can do that for them.

But you need the bricks. And not that many people can give you good bricks. I told him he made good bricks.

That reminded me of a passage from Sir Ernest Gowers’s once well-known book on writing, Plain Words. He explains why officials and others prefer what he calls “pudder” — that is, overblown, pompous, over-complicated, flat, dead language, of which bureaucratic language is the most famous example.

Children don’t write that way, he says, and quotes a ten-year-old’s report on the cow. “The cow is a mammal,” the boy wrote. “It has six sides — right, left, an upper and below. At the back it has a tail on which hangs a brush. With this it sends the flies away so that they do not fall into the milk.”

The boy continues: “The head is for the purpose of growing horns and so that the mouth can be somewhere. The horns are to butt with, and the mouth is to moo with…. The man cow is called an ox. It is not a mammal. The cow does not eat much, but what it eats it eats twice, so that it gets enough. When it is hungry it moos, and when it says nothing it is because its inside is all full up with grass.”

Gowers explains: The boy “had something to say and said it as clearly as he could, and so has unconsciously achieved style.” I like the passage partly because the example cracks me up, but mostly for that last line. The boy “unconsciously achieved style.” He did that by writing directly about what he knew, and without trying to impress with his writing.

He “put down what’s in me,” as my writer said. And that produced more interesting and more enjoyable writing than many professional writers would have created with the same subject. Writing requires craft and art, which require work, but that work includes learning to take yourself out of the story, to point at the thing you want others to see, not to subtly point at yourself.

This lesson learned would improve many a priest’s homilies.

There isn’t enough expressed gratitude in the world, and probably not enough gratitude, period. We are, most of us, with some exceptions, self-absorbed and self-regarding creatures. We like to think that we’ve stretched ourselves through work and virtue rather than admit that we stand on the shoulders of giants. We don’t thank the giants because that would make people notice that we’re actually kind of short.

You shouldn’t have to die for people to say good things about you in front of others, but you basically do. Unless you package yourself as a celebrity, since the world (including the Catholic world) has an insatiable desire for famous people to admire and adore. Normal people who want others to say good things about them in writing need to make sure that before they die they become famous, at least in a small circle that has its own website.

A moving passage from the Catholic writer Alice Thomas Ellis’s autobiography A Welsh Childhood. It comes in the middle of several pages at the end reflecting on death, which she faced with astringent realism and without fear. The children of whom she writes were sons, one of whom died at two weeks old and the other at 16 years.

“The place on earth where I come closest to peace is in the graveyard amongst all the quiet dead. I seem to have thought, all my life, of little but death — partly perhaps because of impatience, a yearning to have it over and done with: that extraordinary last thing that we are called to do, the act of dying. If we have to do it — I think to myself — I would rather do it sooner rather than later.

“But mostly it comes from the old awareness that I am not whole, that there is something missing: something more important than all the world. Death is the price we must pay for completion. I am astonished when I think that two of my children have achieved this feat and I am left here, not knowing what they know. Simple curiosity is another strong element in this possibly lamentable death wish.”

Ellis was a novelist who sometimes wrote other things. Her novels take a grim but amused view of man. Not satirical and uncaring, but very funny, because human beings are funny when you believe in God. Try her first novel, The Sin Eater, which won a batch of awards. If you like it, you’ll love her writing. If you don’t, you’ll dislike it. She’s a specialized taste.

She’s one of those writers whose nonfiction writing conveys a way of looking at the world more than merely telling stories about it. I’m thinking of her Home Life books gathered from her columns in The Spectator, and her first book of columns from The Catholic Herald, called Cat Among the Pigeons.

Ellis observes more than tells or points. Even her stories don’t often round off in the way a storyteller would round them off. I love her writing, but friends to whom I’ve recommended her have responded with versions of “But where’s she going with that?”

The answer is often “Nowhere.” She wants you to see, and doesn’t really care what you do with it.

For many years, political conservatives set themselves against “liberals.” That was the boo-hiss word. Then some left-liberals (like Bernie supporters) started calling themselves “progressives” to distinguish themselves from mainstream liberals (Hillary and her crowd). Ignoring that distinction, some conservatives started calling all liberals “progressives.”

Interesting, at least to me, is that in the past year some conservatives have started calling progressives “Marxists.” I’m not sure they know anything about Marxism, beyond a vague idea of class struggle. But they keep using the word.

It heats up the discussion, like suddenly switching from calling someone “right-wing” to calling him “fascist.” And as a whole, writers are in a heating-up mood. It also marks the other person as a very bad or, at least, very wrong person, in a way “progressive” doesn’t. And it sounds a little academic or intellectual and so dresses up the criticism, the way some people who talk about the Bible will say “pericope” when normal people say “passage.”

Intellectually unhelpful. It reminds me of talking with a conservative Catholic friend ten or more years ago, who’d discovered and loved the writing of Terry Eagleton. (I’m also a fan.) I said, “You do know he’s a Marxist, don’t you?” My friend told me firmly that I was wrong. He wouldn’t hear such a thing. Two or three years after that, Eagleton published Why Marx Was Right, but I don’t remember if I pointed this out to my friend.

“Sir! Sir!” It took me a couple seconds to realize that Sir was me. I was reading by our picnic table in the woods while the rest of the family swam in the lake at the state park, having said I’d be willing to give up that pleasure to watch their things so they could swim, which produced, at this point in our family’s life, only the most pro forma “Are you sure?” because they knew I was sure.

A man of about 30 asked me if I could do him a favor. I said, “If I can,” because I wasn’t born yesterday. “Do you know what a tick looks like?” he asked. I do, I said. “You do?” he asked. Yes, I said. “You know what a tick looks like?” he asked. I said yes again, and he asked again, “You do?” I’ve seen many ticks, I said in a funereal voice, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“Can you tell if I’ve got a tick?” he asked, and expecting him to stick out his arm or leg, I said yes. He turned around and pulled his shirt up under his armpits. “It’s near my spine,” he said, reaching back and pointing to an area of his very white lower back. I said I did not see a tick.

Though he was standing in the sun, he handed me a small flashlight, which unexpectedly helped. I still didn’t see one and told him he had a small red spot near the area to which he was pointing. He asked where. I poked the spot with the flashlight, which saved me having to get a stick, because I was not going to poke a strange man’s naked back.

“Like a pimple?” he asked. I said yes. He asked me if I was sure and I said I was.

He pulled his shirt down, thanked me, and said he’d pulled a tick off his leg earlier. “Came off easy.” Then he lifted his foot, rolled his right pant leg about halfway up his thigh, and pointed to a spot above his knee.

He thanked me quite warmly and walked back up the small slope to a dark blue pickup pulled off the road. I realized he’d seen me sitting down there and pulled over to ask for help. He was taking no chances.

It’s a useful exercise. The sociologist George Yancey asked his Facebook friends to name a conservative and a liberal they respect. A Baptist teaching at Baylor, and politically a centrist, he chose the pre-Trump Dennis Prager and Karl Marx. Prager’s “discussion of happiness and ultimate issues often made me rethink things,” he said. Marx “is the first great thinker to locate the importance of conflict.” His writing is “a warning that if we do not take the concerns of the oppressed seriously then we are setting ourselves up for a lot of pain.”

I answered Irving Kristol and Zygmunt Bauman. Both appeal to me for their sociological and journalistic sense. That is, they tried to see what’s actually happening in the world rather than beginning with an ideological commitment that tells them what’s there.

Of course, we always look at the world through theories, theories that to a great extent we can’t escape. They’re like the lens in an eye, not the lens in glasses. But there’s a huge difference between the mind that lets its vision be challenged by anomalies and the mind that sees even anomalies as reasons to assert the theory even more strongly.

Kristol and Bauman had the first kind of mind. Plus they were (Kristol died in 2009, Bauman in 2017) very, very smart and interesting.

When I asked my Facebook friends their answers, I got some interesting pairs. Catholic free-marketer Ismael Hernandez said the libertarian Thomas Sowell and (didn’t see this one coming) Juan Mari Brás, the Marxist founder of the Socialist Party of Puerto Rico. “He was a great orator, a bright man, a lover of Puerto Rico. He was a man of integrity.” Ismael runs the useful Freedom and Virtue Institute (www.vinstitute.org).

Another Brooklynite listed two New Yorkers. Kristol “was as you describe him and more, a crypto-mensch under his rigorously unsentimental exterior.” She gave Daniel Patrick Moynihan for a liberal.

The Catholic painter Timothy Jones gave Roger Scruton and Cornel West. Thomas Aquinas College professor Richard Delahide Ferrier said, “Lincoln for both.” Joe Long, whom I’ve often quoted here, said Andrew Klavan and Theodore Roosevelt.

My old friend (real-life friend) Judy Warner, who’d been a red-diaper baby and is now a conservative, said Sowell and Jane Jacobs. The latter “cared about how the details of government policies on cities and other things could wreak great destruction on people’s lives and happiness, and fought for her vision of what was good.”

Other answers: Augusto del Noce and Christopher Lasch. George Grant and Marx or Bernie Sanders. Sowell and Moynihan. William F. Buckley and Christopher Hitchens. Wendell Berry and Wendell Berry. Jonah Goldberg and Michael Render (“Killer Mike” of the hip-hop group Run the Jewels).

If you’d like to share your own choices (just one of each), I’ll put them in a future column. See the editor’s note at the end.

Readers who love Newman, which ought to be all of you, will want to know about a new collection of his writings on worship and related subjects. In John Henry Newman: On Worship, Reverence & Ritual, Peter Kwasniewski offers 70 selections from Newman’s Anglican and Catholic periods. The book begins with an early Anglican work on alterations in the liturgy and ends with a selection from Newman’s Catholic meditations and devotions.

Newman, Kwasniewski writes in a brief but helpful editor’s note, took the “formal, public, solemn liturgy of the Church” as “the model and best realization of the believer’s trustful yielding of himself to his Maker and Redeemer…. He can write so movingly about rites and ceremonies because in them he encounters Christ and His friends, the saints.”

I don’t think anyone’s done this before, and it’s very helpful. I would have liked some of the selections abridged, and the book arranged (or at least indexed) by subject, instead of chronologically, and also wider margins to write notes in. And a much longer editor’s note. But those are quibbles, given how useful it is to have all this material collected in one volume.

It’s published by Os Justi Press (www.peterkwasniewski.com/osjusti).

Part of Newman’s great value in thinking about these matters is his sharp and subtle sense of the creatures who are doing these things. In the first entry in the book, he treats liturgical revision, for example, not so much as a problem of what should be changed, but as a problem of the people doing the changing.

“A taste for criticism grows upon the mind,” he writes. “When we begin to examine and take to pieces, our judgment becomes perplexed, and our feelings unsettled…. I confess that there are few parts of the Service that I could not disturb myself about, and feel fastidious at, if I allowed my mind in this abuse of reason.”

He goes on to analyze, astutely, the danger and the effects upon the clergy and especially upon their people.

“Monarch!” he called when I was almost at the car, and I had no idea why he said that. We hadn’t discussed politics. I’d been visiting an older friend for the afternoon, and he’d shown me the flower garden that filled almost all his small front yard. “Monarch!” he said when I turned around, pointing to something I couldn’t see, and smiling with obvious pleasure.

It was a monarch butterfly eating from a flower on one of the milkweed plants he’d grown from seed, in the hope of attracting them. Monarchs will only lay their eggs on, and their larvae can only eat, milkweed plants. He’d worried he’d never see one. The one flitting from flower to flower was the first he’d seen this year.

As I neared the car to leave, I thought, how often do you see an adult take such pure pleasure in seeing a butterfly?

Ed. Note: You may submit your two names via our website (www.newoxfordreview.org/contact-us/letters-to-the-editor) or U.S. mail (NOR, Letters Dept., 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706).


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