Fealty

Allegiance – specifically the acts of homage and fealty – must be today among the least comprehensible customs of that “Western Civ” that was founded and nurtured by the Church through the centuries. In my experience, soldiers sometimes understand it, and monks, and others who are seemingly by nature humble and prayerful.

I have difficulty with it. The notion itself goes against the grain of the society within which I have been moving these last three-score years and more (both here in North America and extended abroad). The preaching, “to thine own self be true,” valid perhaps in some situations, is taken to be definitive in all, to supersede all other loyalties.

This is, as it were, ingrained. That is to say, it is taught by word and example, implicitly as well as explicitly, throughout the culture. Some vestigial Christian teaching persists in spite of it. There is a sneaking respect for the man who has put another ahead of himself. And Christians have no difficulty saying or thinking that they “should” put Christ ahead of themselves. Then thinking, I often suspect, “that should do as an expression of my loyalties.”

Among others, abstract fidelity, to a nation state or a political cause or even a professional sports team, flourishes as a form of “spilt religion.” The human instinct of loyalty is there, is visible. But it is also of no consequence. You feel down when your team loses, up when it wins. The idea of sacrificing your life for, say, the Toronto Blue Jays, does not follow from it.

Marriage, I have heard, is in some trouble as an institution of modern life. Oddly, its chief assailants fixate on the element of “fealty” within the wedding rite. They find that more important than what they imagine to be “accidents,” such as the sex of the respective participants. They understand that an allegiance is pledged, and could be pledged, only between two actual persons. Fervid supporters of “gay marriage” are unlikely to embrace polygamy as well.

We have here another case of vestigial Christianity: the beauty that is perceived within the formal bond. But whether the relation is “heterosexual” or some other, it is fully adapted to the requirements of our age. The “partners” must be “equal,” and the bond remains voluntary both before and after the ostentatious public ceremony. The whole profession of fidelity can be quickly cancelled, without ceremony. One needn’t go to Las Vegas any more, and the only vexed question will be who gets what.

Semper Fi: Marines at Mass, Iwo Jima, 1945
Semper Fi: Marines at Mass, Iwo Jima, 1945

I mentioned soldiers. In my modest experience as a hack journalist, in zones proximate to war, I have come to know some soldiers. I have also come to think that the Christianity espoused by such a high proportion of them is immeasurably enhanced by their experience of loyalty to comrades, under enemy fire. I am not alone in comparing this to the monastic experience, where the common enemy may be “spiritual” and “unseen,” but is nevertheless vividly apprehended: and one monk would lay down his life for another.

There remains the moment when the young seminarian puts his hands within the hands of his superior, and pledges fealty. I think the modern instinct is to wince at this. There is something a little too real about it; it invades all of our “virtual” spaces. Henceforth, he will serve.

Mysteriously, that bond is by extension with Christ, or more precisely vice versa. It is also a bond with the other professed. One has joined an army; one must not desert.

“Bands of brothers” have existed, so far as I know, in all times and places. They are therefore not necessarily Christian. Yet the binding force – the disciplined allegiance, the fealty – is to my mind a godly thing. There is, quite apart from the worldly and cacophonic, a divine music underlying the “Semper Fi” of the USMC, which I have got close enough to hear.

We are in the habit today of apologizing for the Crusades, especially those of us who know nothing about them. But with the usual vestigiality, we persist in “crusades” against poverty, drugs, and other passive things. Against a very active enemy, crusading is now in poor taste. Hence the crusade is against abstract “terrorism,” but against, say, the Daesh only insofar as they may embody the abstract of unambiguous evil in brief moments of media revelation.

Hours later, we are watching our tongues again, lest we betray a belief that the world is full of real as well as virtual enemies, and we find ourselves committed to something inconvenient and uncomfortable.

Allegiance, in marriage and all other forms, is not for a season. “I’m your man” can be taken as an amusing and ironical pop lyric, but when taken literally, it is too much for our sensibilities.

As I confessed above, I have difficulty myself, for I am a modern man like the rest, which is to say, the grain of modernity runs through me. As Catholic Christian I am pledged to go against this grain, but Lord it is sometimes hard, and I am sometimes frightfully complacent. The groundwork of my loyalty to Holy Church is there, but the man who stands upon it is apt to swivel – away from the real, towards the “abstract” and painless.

“Fealty,” the word, is not the same as “fidelity.” It means, or has in English since before modern English came into vogue, “obligation to fidelity.” It can be spotted immediately, by almost anyone who has become aware of historical time, as “a mediaeval concept.” That is to say, it is a Christian concept, a ghost proceeding from some despised or romanticized “age of faith.”

The idea that fidelity might entail an obligation is foreign to the modern mind, even in the moments when it is given lip service, in light shadows such as contract law. To recover it we must first re-imagine what it could mean.

David Warren

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.