“Romanus civis sum”

It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it. But when that affection has passed a certain point it begins to take on the tragic and menacing grandeur of a great love affair. The man has exactly the same sense of having committed or compromised himself; of having been in a sense entrapped, even if he is glad to be entrapped. But for a considerable time he is not so much glad as simply terrified. It may be that this real psychological experience has been misunderstood by stupider people and is responsible for all that remains of the legend that Rome is a mere trap. But that legend misses the whole point of the psychology. It is not the Pope who has set the trap or the priests who have baited it. The whole point of the position is that the trap is simply the truth. The whole point is that the man himself has made his way towards the trap of truth, and not the trap that has run after the man. All steps except the last step he has taken eagerly on his own account, out of interest in the truth; and even the last step, or the last stage, only alarms him because it is so very true. If I may refer once more to a personal experience, I may say that I for one was never less troubled by doubts than in the last phase, when I was troubled by fears. Before that final delay I had been detached and ready to regard all sorts of doctrines with an open mind. Since that delay has ended in decision, I have had all sorts of changes in mere mood; and I think I sympathise with doubts and difficulties more than I did before. But I had no doubts or difficulties just before. I had only fears; fears of something that had the finality and simplicity of suicide. But the more I thrust the thing into the back of my mind, the more certain I grew of what Thing it was. And by a paradox that does not frighten me now in the least, it may be that I shall never again have such absolute assurance that the thing is true as I had when I made my last effort to deny it.

That intensity which seems almost narrow because it comes to the point, like a mediaeval window, is very representative of that last concentration that comes just before conversion. At the last moment of all, the convert often feels as if he were looking through a leper’s window. He is looking through a little crack or crooked hole that seems to grow smaller as he stares at it; but it is an opening that looks towards the Altar. Only, when he has entered the Church, he finds that the Church is much larger inside than it is outside. He has left behind him the lop-sidedness of lepers’ windows and even in a sense the narrowness of Gothic doors; and he is under vast domes as open as the Renaissance and as universal as the Republic of the world. He can say in a sense unknown to all modern men certain ancient and serene words: Romanus civis sum; I am not a slave.

The point for the moment, however, is that there is generally an interval of intense nervousness, to say the least of it, before this normal heritage is reached. To a certain extent it is a fear which attaches to all sharp and irrevocable decisions; it is suggested in all the old jokes about the shakiness of the bridegroom at the wedding or the recruit who takes the shilling and gets drunk partly to celebrate, but partly also to forget it. But it is the fear of a fuller sacrament and a mightier army. He has, by the nature of the case, left a long way behind him the mere clumsy idea that the sacrament will poison him or the army will kill him. He has probably passed the point, though he does generally pass it at some time, when he wonders whether the whole business is an extraordinarily intelligent and ingenious confidence trick. He is not now in the condition which may be called the last phase of real doubt. I mean that in which he wondered whether the thing that everybody told him was too bad to be tolerable, is not too good to be true. Here again the recurrent principle is present; and the obstacle is the very opposite of that which Protestant propaganda has pointed out. If he still has the notion of being trapped, he has no longer any notion of being tricked. He is not afraid of finding the Church out, but rather of the Church finding him out.

This note on the stages of conversion is necessarily very negative and inadequate. There is in the last second of time or hair’s breadth of space, before the iron leaps to the magnet, an abyss full of all the unfathomable forces of the universe. The space between doing and not doing such a thing is so tiny and so vast. It is only possible here to give the reasons for Catholicism, not the cause of Catholicism. I have tried to suggest here some of the enlightenments and experiences which gradually teach those who have been taught to think ill of the Church to begin to think well of her. That anything described as so bad should turn out to be so good is itself a rather arresting process having a savour of something sensational and strange. To come to curse and remain to bless, to come to scoff and remain to pray, is always welcome in a spirit of wonder and the glow of an unexpected good.

The Catholic Church and Conversion (1926)

Published in: on March 28, 2007 at 8:29 pm  Comments (2)  

“Stuck all over with swords and daggers”

What can they mean when they say that we must not put militarism into boys? Can we by any possibility get militarism out of boys? You might burn it out with red-hot irons; you might eventually scourge it out as if it were a mediaeval devil; but except you employ the most poignant form of actual persecution, you certainly will not prevent little boys thinking about soldiers, talking about soldiers, and pretending that they are soldiers. You may mortify and macerate this feeling in them if you like, just as you may mortify and macerate their love of comrades, or their love of wandering…

A child’s instinct is almost perfect in the matter of fighting; a child always stands for the good militarism as against the bad. The child’s hero is always the man or boy who defends himself suddenly and splendidly against aggression. The child’s hero is never the man or boy who attempts by his mere personal force to extend his mere personal influence… To put the matter shortly, the boy feels an abysmal difference between conquest and victory. Conquest has the sound of something cold and heavy; the automatic operations of a powerful army. Victory has the sound of something sudden and valiant; victory is like a cry out of a living mouth. The child is excited with victory; he is bored with conquest. The child is not an Imperialist; the child is a Jingo – which is excellent. The child is not a militarist in the heavy, mechanical modern sense; the child is a fighter. Only very old and very wicked people can be militarists in the modern sense. Only very old and very wicked people can be peace-at-any-price men. The child’s instincts are quite clean and chivalrous, though perhaps a little exaggerated.

But really to talk of this small human creature, who never picks up an umbrella without trying to use it as a sword, who will hardly read a book in which there is no fighting, who out of the Bible itself generally remembers the ‘bluggy’ parts, who never walks down the garden without imagining himself to be stuck all over with swords and daggers – to take this human creature and talk about the wickedness of teaching him to be military, seems rather a wild piece of humour. He has already not only the tradition of fighting, but a far manlier and more genial tradition of fighting than our own. No; I am not in favour of the child being taught militarism. I am in favour of the child teaching it.

– The Illustrated London News, 20 October 1906.

Published in: on March 21, 2007 at 11:34 am  Leave a Comment  

“Nothing but an epic”

Sometimes I see small fragments of information in the newspapers which make my heart leap with an irrational patriotic sympathy. I have had the misfortune to be left comparatively cold by many of the enterprises and proclamations of my country in recent times. But the other day, I found in the Tribune the following paragraph, which I may be permitted to set down as an example of the kind of international outrage with which I have by far the most instinctive sympathy. There is something attractive, too, in the austere simplicity with which the affair is set forth —


Geneva, October 31

The English schoolboy Allen, who was arrested at Lausanne railway station on Saturday, for having painted red the statue of General Jomini of Payerne, was liberated yesterday, after paying a fine of £24. Allen has proceeded to Germany, where he will continue his studies. The people of Payerne are indignant, and clamoured for his detention in prison.

Now I have no doubt that ethics and social necessity require a contrary attitude, but I will freely confess that my first emotions on reading of this exploit were those of profound and elemental pleasure. There is something so large and simple about the operation of painting a whole stone General a bright red. Of course I can understand that the people of Payerne were indignant. They had passed to their homes at twilight through the streets of that beautiful city (or is it a province?), and they had seen against the silver ending of the sunset the grand grey figure of the hero of that land remaining to guard the town under the stars. It certainly must have come as a shock to come out in the broad white morning and find a large vermilion General staring under the staring sun. I do not blame them at all for clamouring for the schoolboy’s detention in prison; I daresay a little detention in prison would do him no harm. Still, I think the immense act has something about it human and excusable; and when I endeavour to analyse the reason of this feeling I find it to lie, not in the fact that the thing was big or bold or successful, but in the fact that the thing was perfectly useless to everybody, including the person who did it. The raid ends in itself; and so Master Allen is sucked back again, having accomplished nothing but an epic.

The Illustrated London News, 24 November 1906.

Published in: on March 15, 2007 at 1:05 am  Comments (1)  

“The heraldic lion”

Every modern person of intelligence can see quite easily that the heraldic lion is very different from the real lion. But what we moderns do not realize is this: that the heraldic lion is much more important than the real lion. Words positively fail me to express the unimportance of the real lion. The real lion is a large, hairy sort of cat that happens to be living… in useless deserts that we have never seen and never want to see; a creature that never did us any good, and, in our circumstances, cannot even do us any harm; a thing as trivial, for all our purposes, as the darkest of the deep-sea fishes or as minerals in the moon. There is no earthly reason to suppose that he has any of the leonine qualities as we ordinarily understand them. There is no ground for imagining that he is generous or heroic, or even proud… He does not touch human life at all. You cannot turn him, as you can the ox, into a labourer nor can you turn him, as you can the dog, into a sportsman and a gentleman. He can share neither our toils nor our pleasures… He has no human interest about him. He is not even good to eat. From the fringe of his mangy and overrated mane to the tip of his tail (with which, I understand, he hits himself in order to overcome the natural cowardice of his disposition), from his mane to his tail, I say, he is one mass of unimportance. He is simply an overgrown stray cat and he is a stray cat that never comes into our street… We have to put him in our museums and such places, just as we have to put tiny little chips of grey stone that look as if you could pick them up in the street, or homely-looking brown beetles at which no self-respecting child could look twice.

But the only kind of lion that is of any earthly practical importance is the legendary lion. He is really a useful thing to have about the place. He holds up the shield of England, which would otherwise fall down… The legendary lion, the lion that was made by man and not by Nature, he is indeed the king of beasts… His virtues are the virtues of a grand European gentleman… He has the sense of the sanctity and dignity of death which is behind so many of our ancient rites. He will not touch the dead. He has that strange worship of a bright and proud chastity. The lion will not hurt virgins. In an innumerable number of old legends and poems you will find the description of the refusal of some eminent lion to touch some eminent young lady… The valuable lion, we have agreed, is a creature made entirely by man, like the chimera and the hippogriff, the mermaid and the centaur, the giant with a hundred eyes, and the giant with a hundred hands…. Remember all the great truths you have read in this article; remember that this heraldic lion is the symbol of all that has lifted our Christian civilization into life and energy and honour – magnanimity, valour, disdain of easy victories, a scorn for all the scorners of the weak.

The Illustrated London News, 11 November 1905.

Published in: on March 7, 2007 at 1:08 pm  Comments (4)