The Catholic Thing
All Souls Print E-mail
By David Warren   
Saturday, 02 November 2013

It is a point of pride, I confess, but I am a slow reader, and more generally a slow learner. A habitual, even willful slow-wittedness, was instilled in me at an early age, by a beloved teacher. Miss Quinn constantly warned her pupils against thinking too fast. A kindly if paradoxical woman, she would actually lay snares to entrap the smart, and took a strangely mischievous delight in the phrase, “The quick and the dead.”

Now, there are advantages to being able to think on ones feet, as I was reminded a few times recently while making short appearances on television. In the world of sound bites and the five-minute interview, the guest who announces that some popular formula “is nonsense for at least ten reasons,” and then offers to enumerate them, will not become a star.

Likewise in our current scribal world – of Wikipedia, Internet databases, and searchable eBook libraries – the space left for plodding is very small. Thanks partly to technology, but perhaps more to the mindset that made the technology possible, the world has been catching up with America. We have become “results oriented” on a planetary scale.

This has been, on the whole, bad news for Christianity, and for Catholic Christianity in particular, which long benefited from slow thinking – if we include such geniuses as Augustine or Aquinas, who always thought slowly, but happened to be able to do it very fast.

On the contrary, it has been good news for those who think quickly, even if they are able to do that only at a glacial pace. I think of so many glorious reputations belonging today to persons whose claim is to one thought, at best – and that rather glib, if not demonstrably asinine.

But, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” as the delightfully slow-witted Thomas Gray observed, in his “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard.”

The fate of that poem, among our modern critics, will illustrate my point. Gray is condemned for not getting anywhere. In particular, he is taxed with failing to make the resounding political statement that would have been of benefit to the oppressed rural poor. He took eight years fussing over his composition, and it isnt even in a recognizable elegiac meter. It meanders ridiculously. About the only thing one can say for the poem, is that no one who reads it can ever forget it.       

I was myself remembering it, very recently, while burying my mother – in what was once the country graveyard of Clarkson, Ontario, now entirely surrounded by metropolitan suburbia. And remembering in turn the very first time I entered a Christian church, as a believer, in a rural parish of Suffolkshire in England. It was on All Souls, in anno domini 1976.

Nor could I ever forget that: the procession of these basically rustic people, with their candles, out of their mediaeval church, into the graveyard of their ancestors. And, the graceful way the procession divided, each family to their own headstones, till the whole graveyard was sparkling with light.

      The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin (c. 1852)

And, how I stood watching – the dead and the living seemingly together, along perhaps with the yet unborn – from my impossibly abstract, tourist position.

And, for the first time in my urbane young life (I was then twenty-three), it did not occur to me to make some cynical reflection on the nature of country hicks, but rather to recognize them all as my superiors.

For I am slow, as I boasted above. Even having admitted to myself, that my adolescent atheism was a puffball, that only fools could believe there is no God, and finally, that Christ was my improbable savior, it took some time to enter a church. To this day I enter any church awkwardly, still unable fully to assimilate the breadth of its content, and with the sinners wonderment about why he is there. And death itself still puzzles me, and the sermons on death still pass over my head.

My mother is now buried beside my father. “Jim and Florrie,” once so happily of this world, have descended into earth to await the Day of Judgment. How few of their once-young contemporaries were left to mourn them; and those mostly needing to be wheeled about. And just behind them, “Harry Roy and Mabel,” my fathers parents, whom I am old enough to remember when they in their turn were still vividly of this world.       

These were not Catholic people. I was the first of this tribe to swim back across the Tiber, after a separation of four or five hundred years. My mama used to joke that my Scotch Calvinist ancestors were spinning in their graves. Notwithstanding, I read the Dies Irae, that old Franciscan sequence for All Souls, and the memorial Masses before Vatican II.

It is a miraculous thing, constructed as if to demonstrate the concision and tight logic of which Latin is capable, and the ease with which a trochaic rhythm will admit the musical order of rhyme. For all the translations, it is unmatched and will be unmatchable in any other language.

As I am vaguely aware, a certain Annibale Bugnini – very quick thinker – had it trashed in the post-conciliar liturgical reforms. He found it too rich for modern tastes; that it “overemphasized” judgment and fear and mediaeval darkness; that it lacked our modern, smiley-face quality. Everyone goes to heaven in the Novus Ordo, or rather, that is the impression that is left, of a Resurrection that will be happy-clappy.

This is a lie, eating away at our heart. It is a lie told because the truth itself has been judged incomprehensible to the modern mind, which is “results oriented,” and not to be crucified by encumbering detail.

Yet to me, the slow and difficult recovery of faith began with All Souls, and the candles lit in darkness, and the “dark, dark, they all go into the dark.”

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
written by Chris in Maryland, November 02, 2013
This essay befits both this Day of the year, and our time in history. Thank you Mr. Warren - and God bless the souls of your parents and family, as I remember those of mine in prayer.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, November 02, 2013
It is decided: At my funeral Mass, I have asked my wife to have sung the Dies Irae. I remember it from the funeral Mass for my father when I was 14 and not only is it (along with black vestments and other accoutrements) reflective of the human experience of grief but drives home the essential point of the kergyma: without Christ's salvific passion, death and resurrection, we'd all be consigned to eternal damnation.
written by Christine , November 02, 2013
Interesting, my journey across the Tiber began on an Ash Wednesday.
written by Martha Rice Martini, November 02, 2013
Thank you for this beautiful reflection. I share your love for the Dies Irae and the pre-Vatican II requiem, and am enormously heartened to meet a fellow traveler in these dark days.
written by Manfred, November 02, 2013
It is important to remember that we pray today for the "faithful departed",i.e., those who have died who are probably (we don't know) in purgatory. We pray that their time there be shortened by our prayers and abstinences. We can certainly pray for anyone, alive or deceased, but this day focuses on those I cite above.
We have been given a tremendous gift by God. In placid times people were often confused by the term "evil", and it was assumed that only very horrible people committed these acts. Now, even the dullest of us realizes that evil pervades our entire society. A single mortal sin, if unrepented, will damn the sinner to Hell for eternity. At Fatima, the Mother of God showed the children Hell and warned that most people go there for "sins of the flesh".
Think about that. That damned soul could be me, you or anyone we might know. That is why you and I must be constantly focused every day of our lives.
Think of this: the Novus Ordo church has been assuring us for the last fifty years that we have nothing to worry about. This church is led by Satan, the "Father of Lies".(see Christ's admonition to the Pharisees where He tells that they lie because God is NOT their Father, but rather Satan is.)
written by Bridget, November 02, 2013
The Tiber, though, can be quite treacherous. 

"I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death."
written by Charles E Flynn, November 02, 2013
My hope is that David Mikics' "Slow Reading in a Hurried Age" will become the antidote to the fast reading popularized by Evelyn Wood, which led to reading Mark Twain without laughing.
written by kristinajohannes, November 02, 2013
People are often surprised to find out that the choice of vestments for funerals in this post Vatican II era includes white, black and violet. My children know that the celebrant at my funeral is requested to wear black (or at least violet) and it is further requested that the reason for the rare choice be explained in the homily which will require an explanation of the reality of purgatory which will hopefully include an exhortation for prayers for those in that state. However, I am not planning on being in Purgatory; I am aiming for Heaven for the simple reason that if I aim for Heaven and miss I am liable to end up at least in Purgatory but if I aim for Purgatory and miss; alas the only destination left is Hell!
written by Mack Hall, November 02, 2013
"These basically rustic people."

On which bank of the Tiber did you learn to patronize your fellow pilgrims?
written by DeGaulle, November 02, 2013
@ Mack Hall: I understand Mr Warren as paying these people a high compliment when he describes them as 'rustic'. It is his own urbanity he finds unhelpful.Personally, I'd be chuffed to be described as rustic. Perhaps you need to read the essay a little more slowly.
written by Other Joe, November 02, 2013
Ah...Mack. Rustic means rural - in the country, does it not? Are we not allowed adjectives these days? Is it not possible to note that some cogs are located outside of the city and suburban limits? One might just as easily inquire how your sensibilities got so grand and exquisite.
written by Chris in Maryland, November 02, 2013
Alright Mack - put the essay down...and back away from it...slowly...
written by Jack,CT, November 02, 2013
My Aunt Dolly passed away on
All Saints day a year ago
I pray for her soul and all
those por souls who have
written by notmarx, November 06, 2013
Speed reading is a waste of time.
written by notmarx, November 08, 2013
One shouldn't fail to mention Thomas of Celano's musical setting of the Dies Irae, the standard at chanted Requiem Masses long ago when I was an altar boy, and still today when the old form is celebrated. It's haunted Western music for most of a millennium now: suave, inevitable and, considering the text it sings, how it announces its scene, strangely reassuring. Somehow the melody fits both the terrible images that begin the hymn and the abject prayer that ends it, bringing the comfort of beauty to the universal catastrophe of death, temporal and endless.

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