The Catholic Thing
HOME        ARCHIVES        IN THE NEWS        COMMENTARY        NOTABLE        DONATE
A Tale of Two Concerts Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Last summer, at the insistence of a good Catholic friend, my daughter and I drove to a small village in Cape Breton, to attend a Celtic music festival.

Don’t imagine glitter. The festival was held in a big green field behind a Catholic church. There were benches, but most people had brought lawn chairs or towels, or were standing, about 4,000 in all, quite a crowd for a place far in the countryside. 

All kinds of people were there, old and young, men and women, kids running around, carpenters, fishermen, farmers, local musicians and step-dancers, and at least one professor – me. Everyone eagerly waited for the star performers. They had arrived overnight, driving 800 miles from a previous engagement in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in a van big enough to transport the band, equipment, and four children.

The stars were Natalie MacMaster, who some believe to be the finest Celtic fiddler in the world, and her husband Donnell Leahy, also a phenomenal musician, with their accompanists and their children – and their faith, their traditions, and their devotion to the land where they were born. 

For it was a homecoming. When they greeted the crowd, they remembered with love the good priest who married them in that same church, whose body now lay in the cemetery beside the field. I sat beside Natalie’s brother, Kevin, who regaled me with family lore, of MacMasters and Leahys, most of whom do other things besides playing music to put bread on the table, but who get together as families on an evening to play Celtic music, long into the night. It seems that the children take up one instrument or another.

There were children – the sweetest thing of all. After Natalie and Donnell made the hills sing with music, they retreated, and, one after another, their children and their cousins came out, step dancing. They would call out a name, and a child would appear – first three teenage girls, almost young women, then five boys in a row, then a scattering of boys and girls down to the youngest, a little girl who had to be held by both hands as she toddled on stage and did a step or two. 

Each child danced a little differently, one or two of the boys making the crowd laugh with boy-antics, and as each came forth, from tallest to smallest, the people applauded and whistled, louder and louder, until with that last baby girl there was nothing but delight and merriment.

The girls wore skirts, the boys wore white shirts and black ties; and they all looked like cousins. They shared the same blood, the same home, the same history, the same faith. Every element in the scene was in its place. There was the land, to which Natalie and Donnell are still devoted. There were the neighbors, the other families whose histories accompanied their own family history for generations. 

There was the church, to whom everyone belonged – or should have belonged; and the memories of people no longer with them, memories ready to be stirred by a glance towards the churchyard near. There was the warm faith of the great musicians, and the vault of the sky above, deepening into a sapphire blue in the twilight of a northern summer evening. 

 
      Donnell Leahy and Natalie MacMaster 

What I beheld that night was culture, in its full and true sense. I don’t know how long it will last, even in that backwoods village in Nova Scotia. Even there, the agents of anticulture have been doing their work – television penetrates, and schools operate under government-mandated curricula. 

Even there, men and women are forgetting to marry, and are raising such few children as are born, outside of the haven of wedded love. People in charge of tourism in Cape Breton have touted the old Celtic music, and there’s a school or two where you can learn it, and even some of the old language. I’m told that there are more speakers of Gaelic in that part of the world than there are in Scotland itself. 

And yet, a school here and a program there do not a culture make. Everything at that concert, those things and they alone make for a culture. And only in a field of faith, where even hearty merriment is duly ordered to our worship of God, and giving Him thanks.

And everything present there, as I considered the matter later, the sexual revolution would destroy: family, community, traditions, faith. For it would drive men and women apart. It would kill children in the womb. It would take away most of the cousins. 

It would sow transience and infidelity at the heart of the nearest human relations and found marriage upon the sands of appetite. It would first turn the human heart away from God, and toward the flesh; and then it would harden the heart against even the goodness and holiness of the human body.

What would it put in that concert’s place? The halftime show at the Super Bowl perhaps. It is almost absurd to complain when the show features a moment of shocking vulgarity. For years, the show has been vulgar from start to finish.  

It is vulgar in its noise, garish lights, prinked up entertainers, and massive celebration of egotism. There is nothing sweet, nothing meek, nothing gentle, nothing to move the heart, nothing to open the mind; no quiet show of talent, no spirit of giving, no humility, no memory, no honor, no devotion, no kindness – not even the merry earthiness of a bawdy joke. It is all crass, harsh, and bitter. 

That is where we have come. The decadent inhabitants of the great city of Rome became people who enjoyed the blood of gladiatorial combats. We have become the sorts of people who enjoy, if that’s the right word, the incessant howl of selfishness. How can it be otherwise, when we have degraded love itself, in the most intimate embrace of man and woman?

 
Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (24)Add Comment
0
...
written by Achilles, February 14, 2012
Dr. Esolen, very powerful piece! You started out like the Bilbo’s 111th birthday in the Shire and ended effectively illustrated how the gates of Mordor have been opened into our world. Your descriptions are poignant and elucidating; “the incessant howl of selfishness.” I wonder who is able to hear it for what it is? Thank you very much!
0
...
written by Dave, February 15, 2012
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Prof. Esolen, for this beautiful tribute to a family -- an extended family -- who remember who they are and who celebrate the goodness of the life given them by the good Lord. I hope that in your future postings you can give us more on the way back, on how to begin to recreate these ties of kith and kin, and of friendship, that once gave meaning to lives great and small and that celebrated the small joys of life for waht they are, portals to the divine. You have given us a needed respite from the controversies of the last three weeks; this respite and refuge we must create for our loved ones and ourselves not only in gratitude to our loving God but as a bulwark of defense for the days ahead.
0
...
written by Other Joe, February 15, 2012
L.U.V. Madonna as the "hook" lyric? It says it all really. It is not even music, but tuned spectacle. Paris Hilton pronounced it the best Super Bowl Halftime Show of any - and the circle closes with a small tinny snap. Luv? Lord above! Now you're trying to trick me in luv.
0
...
written by Bangwell Putt, February 15, 2012
This is how we will be saved, if we are to be saved at all. Although logical explanations and lists of facts are necessary, it is through stories that we have at least a chance to understand human realities. This little history has the quality of legend, one that will preserve something precious that, God forbid, is in danger of extinction.

What are the regulations for quotation of passages from articles on thecatholicthing? Can they be included in, for example, a letter to the editor of a newspaper?
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
0
...
written by Grump, February 15, 2012
Well done, Professor. However, Madonna's vulgar halftime show had nothing on Nicky Minaj's mocking of Catholic ritual and the pope, which was aired during the Grammy awards.
0
...
written by Achilles, February 15, 2012
I can vouch for the sincerity of Jsmitty’s vulgar sentiment- I grew up in a scientific home, sterile and antiseptic- all Truth Goodness and Beauty meticulously bleached out of our environment. It was university educated, will to power, brave new world and all that. The sexual revolution was only fruit of Darwin’s tree- my parents didn’t openly approve but wouldn’t dare interfere with evolution. My life, my marriage and my family were the train wreck Madonna would have been proud of until God, His Angels and Saints conspired to lift me out of the quagmire and show me the road to the world Professor Esolen describes. JSmitty, it is far from a figment of Professor’s literary imagination, he merely describes what countless others have described, and if you would like more information about it read St. Augustine’s opus City of God. The cost of citizenship is a broken heart. It seems like a steep price until you have a look at the welfare system- it is unimaginable! In fact, Kierkagaard would take it one further in asking “who cannot conceive of being born? Of course, those who have never been born at all.” He then says the same of those who have been reborn of the Spirit- those who have never been reborn cannot conceive of it.
0
...
written by Bangwell Putt, February 15, 2012
Anthony Esolen describes a real community, a place in which faith, family, and tradition did (and still does) really matter. He describes a real place where people understand that the words "marriage," "mother," "father," "son," and "daughter" mean something specific; what was once meant by "family ties". This was understood, either in observance or in the breach, by everyone.

No doubt there is trouble and strife within these families. There is suffering. There is doubt, even loss of faith. These things are unavoidable in the life of any family. The point is that the extended family described has endured together. There is hope for their future as a family unit.

This is neither "symbolism" nor is it "sentimentality". It is a living reality. We have a witness to all this. Anthony Esolen was there and he has told us about it.
0
...
written by Louise, February 15, 2012
Dear Jsmitty,

How old are you? Your comment calls to mind Belloc's method of studying history--by generational experience. When a generation comes to age in a decadent, depraved culture, that generation will never believe that a culture of faith and dignity ever existed. I can tell you that it did, not in perfection because perfection is saved for the next life, and maybe not in a catechetical manner of "knowing the Faith", but in the way that people understood their place in the world with common virtues of respect for oneself and for others and for society as a whole.

In what city today could z 17-year-old girl walk a mile alone, get on a bus, then a subway to downtown Boston, then a half-mile walk to class, then repeat the journey homeward, all after dark. The subway stop was in what is today the roughest part of Boston but then I stood alone on the platform waiting for the train at 10:00 at night, finally ending the trip with a mile walk home, arriving about 11:00PM. I did this two nights a week for four months. Not today. That must tell you something about the way things were, although, sadly, you or your children may never experience such a society. That does not mean that it never existed.
0
...
written by jsmitty, February 15, 2012
Well I'm getting some different answer. Achilles you more or less make my point for me...The City of God after all never was real in the sense that one could travel there to attend a Celtic Concert. It was a literary figure of an ideal city in the Christian mind of Augustine. Its relationship to the actual city of man was always very tenuous, in no small part because the City of Man is very complicated and ever changing.

And I think Louise and Bangwell also confuse the City of God with the actual city they remember from their own childhoods. Augustine was far too brilliant to ever iimply that the City once--or a facsimile thereof once existed but was lost due to social decay or poor welfare policies or what have you.

And my argument against Anthony Esolen is NOT that we should not preserve the ideals of the City of God or inculcate them in the all generations, or strive to apply them better. Nor is it that the folks at the Celtic festival are not exemplifying values that others could learn from.

It is the persistent narrative that our society HAD all of values of a noble society and then suddenly one day in the 60's cast them aside to pursue the pleasures of the flesh, pleasures which had been hitherto as a genie kept in a well corked bottle. In effect, Esolen's idealism gets ruined when he writes in a way such that it becomes reducible to a kind 50's nostalgia.

If the 50's (the time before the sexual revolution hit) were the epitome of the rock solid (as opposed to a rock candy) nation based on virtue and selflessness, why and how did all that was good and noble collapse so quickly in the 60's?

Could it be that the 50's in its own way turned out to be just as based on "rock candy" as Esolen thinks our society is today?
0
...
written by Tony Esolen, February 15, 2012
What I do for a living, and have done for many years: I introduce freshmen, all year long, to the history, literature, theology, philosophy, art, and music of the west, from its beginnings in Palestine and Mesopotamia, to the end of the Renaissance. I am of course quite aware of the failings of every civilization that has ever existed. I am also aware of their glories.

I know for a fact that before the Pill, almost all children in the United States were born within wedlock. Given the unreliability of condoms, and their association with low-lifes, that meant that a great majority of people expected something like chastity from women before marriage, and something like continence, if not chastity, from men. If the numbers don't persuade, then what their contemporaries said about the matter might -- including not only preachers but psychologists and sociologists not at all noted for their conservatism.

What I was beholding there was the remnant of a culture. It is a new phenomenon in the world, what we have now -- mass entertainment, mass politics, mass education, mass sports. I'm not the first to note this. Romano Guardini and Gabriel Marcel were saying it already at the end of World War II...
0
...
written by Bangwell Putt, February 16, 2012
My comment was actually not about my personal memories. It was about timeless things and specific meanings.

The ground for the collapse referred to by "jsmitty" was prepared for such an event. There have been many collapses and recoveries throughout history. Societal virtue and personal goodness do not just happen. They have to be made to happen through daily, even hourly, effort to accept purification from God. Each member of a community has the opportunity to participate in the work. We teach and support one another, for good or for evil.

0
...
written by Louise, February 16, 2012
'And I think Louise and Bangwell also confuse the City of God with the actual city they remember from their own childhoods. Augustine was far too brilliant to ever iimply that the City once--or a facsimile thereof once existed but was lost due to social decay or poor welfare policies or what have you. '

Growing up in the '30s and '40s, marrying in the mid-50s, I knew nothing about Augustine or the City of God, so I was not intending to bring that work into the discussion. I only knew that my father came home every night of my life (every father I knew did); my mother was at home almost every day when I came home from school; Sunday dinner was a weekly family occasion--even when it was "Depression food" on the table, as every evening meal was a family occasion. I had heard of divorce but never knew anyone who was. My brother and his wife were having troubles once and I remember my father roaring out: "THERE IS NO DIVORCE IN OUR FAMILY. WORK IT OUT." And they did, and had a long and happy marriage.

Late in my life I was working as a book production editor. A sociology professor from Colorado State Univ. asked for a photograph for his textbook "of a corny 1950s family picnic." When I sent him photos of family picnics, I wrote a little note saying that "We didn't think we were being corny. We thought we were repeating what we had lived, providing a stable, loving home for our family, where we loved each other and enjoyed each other's company." BTW, we still do.

Yes, one day in the 1960s the world turned upside down--in 1968 to be exact. You may think I am exaggerating or being sentimental, but I will defend the '50s' family until the end of my life, and the '30s and '40s family as well. Having just looked into some family history, I have a sense of what raising four growing children and an infant in the 1930s was all about. Ant, a decade later, the parents who lived through that decade sent those same children off to war less than a decade later. Some children came home. Many didn't. The parents who raised their families and lived through the '30s and '40s can be forgiven anything.

City of God? No, I know nothing about the City of God. I know only of hard-working people who, in spite of pain, deprivation, suffering, loss, kept on keeping on, doing the best they could under very difficult circumstances. They weren't crying and complaining and running to the government because they couldn't afford an I-phone. They stuffed newspaper or cardboard in their children's shoes so they would last the school year when the kids could go barefoot until September.


0
...
written by Achilles, February 16, 2012
Jsmitty, I have not spoken well for Professor Esolen. I can assure you, that you have not understood him well. But perhaps you prove Kierkegaard’s point.
0
...
written by Lauri Friesen, February 16, 2012
I have been reflecting on my emotional response to this essay, which was one of tearful nostalgia for the unfulfilled potential of my own extended family. My father was the oldest of ten children and there were about 60 cousins for my four siblings and me. While my parents (Catholics) chose to live about 300 miles away, the rest of the family (Mennonites)lived within about 20 square miles of each other until the nineties, when the majority of the children became adults. For the most part, they rejected the religion and culture of their childhoods in favour of that of the broader world. The results were, to say the least, very unpleasant for many of them. They, including my parents, believed they could escape the intimacy of these family relationships while maintaining the love. Like so many before us and our contemporaries, we are learning that ignoring our neighbours leads to an ever-increasing loss of real love in all of our relationships.
0
...
written by Tony Esolen, February 16, 2012
Like Louise and Lauri, I too came from a large family -- not my own, because my mother and father had four children, but the whole collection of aunts and uncles and cousins. My siblings and I have 39 first cousins; many of them lived in our small town (all my mother's five siblings lived with their families within a few blocks of us, and another five cousins from my father's side lived in the same town). What with all those families -- 26 aunts and uncles -- we had an unusual opportunity to view the results of the bad decisions made after the sexual revolution (which cousins escaped them because they came of age earlier, or were more firmly committed to the faith). My wife, an only child, has 42 first cousins too, so we two have had a wide field to survey. It isn't a pretty sight.
0
...
written by Dan Deeny, February 16, 2012
Dr. Esolen's article is interesting. Yes, I too enjoy Natalie McMaster's music and the Leahy Family"s music and dancing. For example, Leahy Family/King's Dance on youtube is wonderful. You can see God.
But Dr. Esolen's tone is a bit like a grouchy old man. Will this tone work?
0
...
written by Louise, February 16, 2012
Dear Dan,

I know Dr. Esolen only from his writing, but I can assure you that he is not a "grouchy old man", and neither am I a grouchy old woman (contrary to popular opinion). When one is forced to recollect and to contemplate what was lost and what can never be again, one's suppressed mourning tends to sound like grouchiness, and even anger.

Like the parents who raised families through the Depression and then sent their children off to war (they followed the war news every day in the local paper, the battles won and lost; they wrote letters addressed to a nameless APO or NPO and read letters with lines and paragraphs blacked out; they saw the news reels before the movies that showed bombs falling from planes onto their sons' ships or field positions, like them, we too lost our children or nieces and nephews, friends and neighbors to another kind of war, but one just as lethal and, in a way, more deadly because there was only degradation but no honor attached, no gold-star flag to hang in the window, only sickening questions--Why? What happened? What did I do wrong? over and over again.

So, if there is sadness that never quite goes away, forgive us for sounding grouchy. We didn't ask for this war that overtoo--and took away--our children. We never even saw it coming. But the suffering has been horrendous. Every time I read an obituary of a man or woman just slightly older than I, I wonder whether their children ever said to them, "I'm sorry for causing you so many years of grief and heartache and pain." Probably not.
0
...
written by Sam Schmitt, February 16, 2012
"If the 50's (the time before the sexual revolution hit) were the epitome of the rock solid (as opposed to a rock candy) nation based on virtue and selflessness, why and how did all that was good and noble collapse so quickly in the 60's?"

Good questions and well worth asking.

It's not the case (as you seem to suggest) that the 1950s were just as decadent as today. Of course people were selfish, cruel, promiscuous, etc, back then. The difference today is that people are openly defending such behavior as normal, and even branding as intolerant those who dare to offer a different standard.

Let me give you two things which illustrate the unprecedented nature of the breakdown of our culture. First, in 1930 the Anglican bishops said that contraception was OK in certain cases. This was the first time in all of Christian history that this had been allowed. It was not uncontroversial at the time - even some secular voices like the Washington Post (believe it or not) condemned it: "Carried to its logical conclusion, the committee’s report if carried into effect would sound the death-knell of marriage as a holy institution, by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality." Remember this is the Post, not the Pope, but it's fair to say that (unlike today) the bishops' decision was wholeheartedly accepted by society.

Turns out these predictions weren't that far off. With the introduction of the Pill (my second point), artificial birth control became cheap, easy, and effective. This all happened in the case of a generation. You seem incredulous that such a sea change could take place overnight, but given these facts (among others) it shouldn't be that surprising.

The mentality engendered by the Pill - that a child is not a gift to be accepted and cherished but a "choice" to be "planned" and, if necessary, "terminated" - has become the norm, and woe to you if you do not fall into line.

This principle is then applied to every aspect of life: all must be planned, insured (ideally by the government), controlled, used, productive; if it cannot be, it is deemed useless. It is the very antithesis of the culture described by Dr. Esolen, and, I submit, the root of the sickness in our society.
0
...
written by Dan Deeny, February 17, 2012
Louise, Thank you for your response. Are you familiar with Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin?
0
...
written by Louise, February 17, 2012
Yes, Dan, I am familiar with him but not well enough to trust him--or myself reading him. Since my reading list is a half-mile long already, I have removed any author whose works and thinking are not well regarded enough to be quoted or referred to often by people whose work I do trust. I'm too old to go wandering down untried paths.

There is one more comment that I would like to add to what I said previously. The world that I knew growing up was not a world of my generation's invention, or even of my parents' or grandparents' invention. It was a world that we inherited, kept reasonably sane and intact by enough faithful people who lived what they professed.

I see now that the generation that followed mine was too much influenced by the infiltration of post-World War II Marxist thought in the universities, into which the children of veterans marched in droves. There, whatever patrimony of Christianity remained was erased from the memories of the vast majority of young people whose every need was met by parents who had been determined never to let their children suffer or go hungry or go without as they had seen the suffering of the children of Europe and Asia. The Christian patrimony that survives today is found only in the pockets of family-oriented life that Dr. Esolen describes.

It may well take another 2000 years to regain the lost heritage that my son once described to me (in raising his children) as "I thought was self-evident." It wasn't.
0
...
written by UltraMontane, February 20, 2012
"When women dress immodestly, and men despise religion, it is the beginning of the end" -Seneca
0
...
written by Beth, March 11, 2012
Thank you so much for this article Prof. Esolen. And thanks too for the comments--all of them. Rising children in this day is so very difficult. Please pray for families!
0
...
written by ashley macisaac, March 30, 2012
i am a fiddler.from.cape.breton island as well and have performed.the broad.cove concert in the woods you speak of.i have also travelled.the world played the acropolis carnigie hall and the small family.gatherings.all.around cape.breton.i was also told.i could no longer recive communion in my.church and was sent a excommunication lettrer in 1996 so as to not recieve comminion in Natalies church..bcause -im gay.-id rather play for millions at the superbowl.but here is my point.-i put together a great.group of fiddlers.to perform on the opening ceremonies ofthe olympics in canada and being bigger then the superbowl audience co sidered it both patriotic and an honour to the peace.canada wanted.to present thru its art and music to the world.natalie and donnel whom both were schedueled.to be.part.dropped out the week before.claiming religion prevented.them from being there..oh.amd that i was gay amd closing the number just didnt match up with thier rehersed.for.a.year.imagee becuase.it didnt praise.there starhood.enough.When you know the truth behind such peoples motives.you may.consider what gods plan is or even your own.but dont think becuase.someone smiles.with thier children on stage.ina fieod that you really.know what kind of a.spitful hateful.jealous person they really.areId prefre.listen to Janet jackson anyday to find the truth.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


busy
 

Other Articles By This Author

CONTACT US FOR ADVERTISERS ABOUT US