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 one’s 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 isn’t 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 sinner’s 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 father’s 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.”