Tonight I have been reading around in Gentle Regrets, a collection of Roger Scruton’s essays, looking for things he wrote about his time working with the anti-communist resistance in Eastern Europe. I had forgotten about his exquisite essay called “Stealing From Churches,” which I had written about years ago on my old Beliefnet blog. Back then, I wrote that I described “Stealing From Churches” as “having the effect of turning on a lamp in a dark room, and seeing in their fullness things only perceptible before in outline.”
The heart of the essay is a sketch of two deeply humane Catholic believers who made an enormous impression on the atheist Scruton: a Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, an aristocratic Englishman and popular old-school priest, and Basia, a poor Polish philosophy student who had suffered. In the essay’s opening, Scruton writes poetically about being drawn to old and nearly abandoned French country churches as a young man. He opens by relating a sense of being a vandal in visiting churches as an unbeliever, as many tourists are:
Of course, they don’t steal the works of art, nor do they carry away the bones of the local martyr. Their thieving is of the spiritual kind. They take the fruit of pious giving, and empty it of religious sense. This theft of other people’s holiness creates more damage than physical violence. For it compels a community to see itself from outside, as an object of anthropological curiosity. Those holy icons that returned the believer’s gaze from a more heavenly region are suddenly demoted to the level of human inventions. Those once silent, God-filled spaces now sound with sacrilegious chatter, and what had been a place or recuperation, the interface between a community and its God, is translated to the realm of aesthetic values, so as to become unique, irreplaceable, and functionless. The tool that guaranteed a community’s lastingness, becomes a useless symbol of the everlasting.
Scruton then relates his role in an actual minor theft from a country church (of crystal cruets), and how it haunted him for years afterward. The real theft, though, was sacramental — his failed marriage to a Catholic woman, which broke him spiritually. He writes of his lesson as a spiritual thief: “Stay away from holiness, was the lesson. Stay away until you are sure it possesses you.”
Anyway, the profiles Scruton writes of those two very different Catholic believers illustrate what it is like to live one’s life devoted to the Good, and the Good in the person of Jesus Christ. It awed the philosopher Scruton, and humbled him. Here is a passage telling of his dinner with Msgr. Gilbey, who was 84 at the time:
On 1 August 1985, I had dinner with Alfred Gilbey in the Oxford and Cambridge Club (the kitchens in the Travellers’ being closed for the summer holiday). Here is what I wrote in my diary:
How strange the vision of his face as he talks, his eyes fast shut and ringed with folded flesh, his mouth closed and half smiling, his speech barely audible, as though addressed to another, invisible and immaterial presence. His soft slabs of cheek are encased by two symmetrical squares of wrinkles, which seem like deep-cut mouldings around monumental panels of marble. And the voice so rapid and so quiet, glancing off the surface of a thousand subjects, each of which seems to reach out and touch it, only to be left trembling and unfulfilled. He referred to a recent letter of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales to the Pope in Rome, lamenting the decline in their congregations, and calling for a teaching and a practice that would be more ‘relevant’ to the needs of today.
‘What an absurd demand — to be relevant! Was Christ relevant? To be relevant means to accept the standard of the world in which you are, and therefore to cease to aspire beyond it. Relevance is not merely an un-Christian but an anti-Christian ambition.’
It is hard to fault that argument; but also difficult to welcome its corollary, which is the vision of a Church enduring forever, but acknowledged only by a few old priests living in spiritual catacombs of their own devising, celebrating the rituals of a Church so truly universal that it has no living members. But that was another of his sayings, that all the best people are dead. Alfred went on to add that Christian charity is now entirely misunderstood, as a kind of collective effort to improve the world.
‘We are not asked to undo the work of creation or to rectify the Fall. The duty of a Christian is not to leave this world a better place. His duty is to leave this world a better man.’
He was dismissive of academic historians, saying that ‘any historian who makes history readable is suspect to those who can’t’. And he had some harsh words to say concerning the modern approach to education, as an ‘education for life’; such cliches awaken the old recusant instinct, which tells him that people might be entirely mistaken, especially in those beliefs that they take to be self-evident. ‘True education,’ he retorted, ‘is not for life, but for death.’ His aphoristic way of talking gains much from his soft, liquid voice, barely audible yet resounding nevertheless in the moral echo-chamber that invisibly surrounds him. He recounted anecdotes of his friend Archbishop David Mathew, who had described Pius XI as a ‘great believer in moderate rewards’, of his Cambridge days and of his long-standing connection with Trinity. He recalled an after-dinner silence in the combination room:
A to B: How is your wife?
B (slowly turning, with raised eyebrows): Compared to whom?
This dialogue neatly encapsulates the relation between the sexes, as Alfred conceives it.
He also told with great feeling an apocryphal story concerning the composition of Leonardo’s Last Supper, which, in this version of events, the artist composed over many decades, constantly searching the streets and alley-ways of Milan for the ideal types upon whom to model the twelve apostles, and having begun with the beautiful and innocent face of a young man whose expression seemed to capture all the grace, dignity and tender compassion of Jesus. After years of labour the apostles had all been assembled, representing in their carefully differentiated expressions the fine gradations of hope, resolution, weakness and despair. Only one remained and that was Judas, whose baseness no citizen of Milan seemed to wear on his face, and to whom Leonardo began to despair of giving the absolute lifelikeness that was vital to his conception. At last, in a mean alleyway, a dark figure, engaged in some whispered transaction, caught the painter’s eye.
Recognizing in those fear-filled, treacherous glances the lineaments of Judas, Leonardo enticed him to the cenaculo with a gift of silver.
The figure, shifty, suspicious and huddled into himself, is pushed into a corner and told to sit. Looking up at last, and recognizing the painter and the tools of his trade, he says, ‘You have painted me before.’
‘Have I?’ asks the startled painter. ‘When?’
‘Oh, a long time ago.’
‘And for what purpose?’
Judas turns to the nearly completed fresco that is taking shape above them.
‘There I am,’ he says, and points to Christ.
The story is characteristic. Although Alfred’s anecdotes range far and wide, and contain a large streak of satire and even flippancy, there is a single point of reference in all of them, and that is not Catholicism or the Church or Christian civilization or any socially constructed thing, but Christ himself, in all his mystical completeness and simplicity.
This intense personal relation to the Redeemer rescued Monsignor Gilbey from worldliness, made him stand out like a visiting angel wherever he appeared, and in a strange way justified his impeccable turnout and polished manners. The maxim that ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’ is often ridiculed, since it suggests the religion of the nursery, by which Nanny calls God to her aid. But the maxim is ridiculed only by those who have not seen what cleanliness and godliness have in common — namely, the maintenance of the human body as the soul’s earthly vessel and the sensory image of God. Hence it is not only in Protestant countries that the maxim is repeated; nor is it confined to Christian communities. The Muslims will tell you that an-nazaafa min al-imaan — cleanliness is like faith.
Basia was a student who fell in love with Scruton when he was in Poland, but who insisted that their relationship remain Platonic. She told him that she believed it was God’s desire for her to work for Scruton’s salvation, and for that reason, she had to remain chaste with him. (Though an atheist at the time, Scruton years later accepted the Christian faith as an Anglican.) He writes:
But then Basia was young, and her first need was to confess. I learned that the order in her soul was not innate but acquired, and acquired by swimming constantly against the current of sensual desire. She had visited England as an au pair to a Pakistani family, had been seduced by the husband, and had come back to Poland with his baby inside her. She had lived thereafter in the full consciousness of her body, knowing that it must be ruled and guided. She confessed to her unchastities with chaste and reverent words. And she brought home to me, then and subsequently, what is perhaps the most important truth conveyed by religion, and one that Monsignor Gilbey, incidentally, had built onto the foundations of his life — the truth that sex is either consecration or desecration, with no neutral territory between, and that nothing matters more than customs, ceremonies and rites with which we lift the body above its material need and reshape it as soul. In so far as this thought survives in our modernist culture, it is in some garbled version of the panegyrics of D.H. Lawrence. Basia phrased it in the pure, simple, liturgical language of her church, and showed through her emotion that she had re-made herself, so as one day to give herself entirely. Perhaps she should have been a nun; but it was too late for that. Now her first thought was to encounter the temptation that I presented, not to flee from it, but to vanquish it. For the crazy idea had also come into her head that she could help me to salvation.
“Surely there is no hope of that,” I said.
“Yes, I had thought this once — that there is no hope, that this salvation is a nonsense. And almost I committed a suicide. I was such a small shrinked person. But He did not accept. He hunted me, He found me, He was there in dark corner where I go to hide. And now you see, He gives me you for a rescue.”
This rescue took on a strange significance over the months that followed: it was to be a rescue not of her only, but of me too. Together we were to go in search of peace, and we would find it, since God wanted only this for us. Basia’s letters told an extraordinary story of her continual conversation with God. Every little detail of her life entered this conversation and was raised by it to a higher level, irradiated there by the light of her faith. She described her life as though it were a private song of praise: whether queueing for food, singing to her daughter, praying in church, studying logic, reading the poets, arguing, carousing or dancing with her friends, wandering in the deserted calm of the Polish countryside, learning the names of birds and flowers, she rejoiced. And she took me always with her in her thoughts, testing me against these things, and asking God to approve both me and her and to show us that we, like the world, were blessed.
Later in the essay:
We discussed the situation in Poland. Father Popieluszko had recently been murdered by the secret police, and Basia, like most Poles, saw him as a saint and a martyr. Nevertheless, she believed that the queues, shortages, privations, and the indignities of daily life under communism were so many opportunities for inner freedom. It was necessary to resist, of course; but the real fight was within you, to overcome the spirit of selfish calculation. The important thing, she said, was not to improve the world, but to improve yourself. That Basia, living in poverty in her communist prison, should repeat the words of Monsignor Gilbey in his London club, testified to the reality of the Church, as a unified spiritual entity, a corporate person whose members are, in St. Paul’s words, “members in Christ.”
This beautiful essay is worth the price of the book.
Isn’t that true of us, in our time and place? That the real fight is within us, to overcome the spirit of selfish calculation.