Let’s Really Read the Signs of the Times

We are supposed to read “the signs of the times,” says Jesus, and the fathers at the Second Vatican Council urged us to do the same.  I used to say that they did have the times before their eyes – The New York Times.  That was not fair.  The documents expressed a good deal of skepticism for claims that the world of the 1960’s was on the verge of a new instauration of liberty, intelligence, social cohesion, artistic beauty, and peace among nations.

Still, that was a long time ago, and I don’t hear anyone, not even the current sexual revolutionaries in their flailing against everything sane and wholesome, claiming that we dwell in a fine and wonderful place.  People do love to complain, and I am no exception; and it is often those who love old and threatened things who complain the most, because they are most apt to see the end drawing near.  That does not mean they are right to complain.  Some things, even good things, should come to an end, to be replaced by things that are better, taking it all in all.

And yet sometimes they are not replaced.  They are merely destroyed.  Then those who read the signs of the times must do something that the wisest of us will find difficult to do.  We must read not what is there, but what is not there.  We must “see” what is missing.

We are assisted in this enterprise by reading old books (which do not have to be very old, if we are talking about courtship, marriage, and family life) or watching old films, but that is not my main concern here.  Sometimes we are granted a kind of social palimpsest: a work that bears traces of the work beneath it, as a painting imperfectly covered with whitewash, or a manuscript whose print has been erased so that the page can be written on again. But you can still, if you look closely, see what the original was, either because bits of ink remain, or because the page still retains the initial physical impress.

Take the word prom.  It’s an abbreviation for promenade, and that alone suggests a world that no longer exists.  Schools began to hold dances, promenades, which would be formal, and in their music, their dancing, their mannerliness, and their good cheer, they would be like a parade of young people dressed at their most comely, proceeding down the main street of town, to the admiring glances and nods of their elders.

And the schools could hold dances, because everyone assumed that boys and girls did know how to dance; and as late as Booth Tarkington’s raucously comical novel of boyhood, Penrod, it was a part of Americana that children would be invited or cajoled into dancing classes.  The prom, then, was built upon a firm cultural foundation of what people expected boys and girls and young men and young women to do.


It could hardly be so built if it were the only dance in the year that the youngsters would attend, nor would the youngsters be going to dances unless their elders might also do so, and not as chaperones only but as happy participants.  Hundreds of old films, without any intent to make a social point, casually testify to it.

But I think that if the prom did not now exist – though it has gone lewd and garish – it would not occur to anyone to invent it.  We do not have the music.  We do not have dances with specific structure to them that everybody knows, though here and there, for people who have taken instruction, ballroom dancing and square dancing have made cautious comebacks.

We do not have the lived traditions.  In fact, we no longer have any healthy traditions at all for bringing young people together.  And to the extent that people in the Church wish to accommodate her teachings to the unhappy, confused, alienated, family-delaying, family-splitting world of our day, they have their eyes clamped shut.  They refuse to see; they refuse to read the signs.

Put it this way.  You cannot have a healthy Church unless you have strong Catholic families, and you cannot have those families unless you have many traditions (such as those proms once were) that assume that men and women are for one another. And you cannot have those traditions unless you protect them with the moral rules that strengthen us when temptations are strong and our resolve is weak, and that guard us from our worst selves. And you cannot have those moral rules if you accept sodomy, fornication, divorce, adultery, and the production and consumption of pornography.

If you want a world whose existence still gleams faintly behind that word “prom,” or behind the marriage ceremony and the bride’s wearing white, or within the language of the vows, now repeated as if they were pro forma, as sweet and artificial as a wedding cake, you must treat marriage not as something that may or may not happen in the course of a long-running sexual liaison. You must treat it as, for almost everyone, the ultimate aim of boyhood and girlhood, in relationship to one another, the pinnacle of courtship, and the beginning of a new thing, the marriage, with the initial act of marriage being the giving of each to the other, without reserve.

You simply cannot have that if you do not repudiate what has ruined it.  You cannot have both the painting and the overlay that obstructs it.  You cannot have both the healthy body and the poison that has wasted away its muscles and riddled its bones, so that what is left seems a mere shadow.

I believe, too, that the analogy here holds with many another feature of our Church, still barely visible in a prayer here, a statue there, an old breviary in a closet, spots on walls and floors where rails, altars, and paintings used to be.  Read those signs, and read them well.


*Image: High School Dance sequence from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946. George Bailey (James Stewart) and Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) “trip the light fantastic.” The sequence was filmed at the Swim Gym at Beverly Hills High School in Los Angeles. It still exists.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.