Crossing Swords with C. S. Lewis

Visitors to the Ink Desk will have become accustomed to the comments on each new issue by Father Peter Milward, the internationally-renowned Shakespeare scholar who was always a keen supporter of the St. Austin Review. Sadly Father Milward died on August 16th. Here is my heartfelt tribute to a great scholar and a good friend:

Become a Patron of the Catholic Arts

Become a Patron of the Catholic Arts

A Personal Appeal by Joseph Pearce

It’s hard to believe that the St. Austin Review is now in its seventeenth year. I have been blessed to be its editor since its birth, way back in 2001, and have always considered my role as editor to be a true labour of love.

As we move forward I’d really like to be able to move up to another level with regard to the impact we can make on the culture. Although we continue to produce a top quality magazine, in my view the best there is and unique in what we offer, we have always been hampered in getting the word out because of our lack of resources. I am, therefore, making this personal appeal in the hope that you might want to join me in my efforts to transform the culture of death into a culture of life through the power of Catholic goodness, truth and beauty. I am in need of your help as an ally or as a comrade in arms in the struggle to build a Catholic Cultural Revival in the twenty-first century. Might you be able to become a patron of the Catholic arts by supporting our crusade for beauteous truth?

Although we can already claim to be one of the finest Catholic publications in the world, we are handicapped by our inability to make ourselves known to the wider world. There are tens of thousands of people out there who would benefit from reading the invigorating and edifying articles that we publish. The problem is that they don’t even know that we exist. With your help, we can make ourselves known to a world that is so much in need of what we offer. This is why I sometimes consider StAR to be the best kept secret in the Catholic world. It’s not a secret that I want to keep. On the contrary, I want to spread the news of our existence from the hilltops! This will only be possible if you step forward to join me in the noble cause to reclaim the culture for Christ.

Could you take out a gift subscription for a friend? The details are on the back cover. If every subscriber gave just one gift subscription, we’d double our circulation

Could you consider supporting us with funding for advertising? If so, I’d be delighted to hear from you personally. Please feel free to contact me directly via e-mail: [email protected]

Please do join me in the struggle to transform our world. Together we can make the StAR shine brighter in a world in need of the goodness, truth and beauty of Christian culture.

Thanks so much for being one of the wise men who follow the StAR and for considering becoming one of those who will lead others to it.

                Yours in the light of Christ,

                Joseph Pearce


Our Insipid Faith

From an email to a student …

Today I wanted to quote one short Bible verse that really struck home for me yesterday.

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.  (Mat. 5:13)

One of the versions of that verse at the link above translates it thus, “if salt becomes insipid, with what will it be salted?”
INSIPID is a great word.  It means not only “tasteless”, but stupid, inane, unable to cause excitement.
The original Greek word in this passage (Mat. 5:13) is μωραίνω, a word that means both “tasteless” and “stupid” or “foolish”, and is a word related to the English word “moron”.  Elsewhere in the New Testament, this word is translated as “stupid” or “foolish”.
I’m sorry to say that almost everything we do officially as the Catholic Church is “insipid”.
This is not true for EWTN or the American Chesterton Society, for instance, but it is true at 95% of the parishes I visit in my travels, and it is true in the lives of most Devout Catholics I know.  The vast majority of Catholics I know do not know their faith, do not care about their faith, and do not practice their faith.  The small percentage I know who are Devout Catholics tend to be INSIPID.  They are like the architecture and music and homilies in the suburban Church.
I am trying to be careful not to rant here, because it’s easy to get caught in a toxic mood about this sort of thing.  But I am describing something very real and spiritually deadly.
As a group, Catholics have become insipid.  Why would anybody want to be Catholic?  We have no character.  We are inspired by nothing.  We smile a cheesy smile, and our communion with one another is as lame as the “sign of peace” at Mass.
I’m a crabby old man, but what I’m saying is true.  We should be on fire.  We have the strength of the cross behind us.  We have a God who descended into the darkness and muck and mire of our worst sins to save us.  We have a glorious rehabilitation at our fingertips.  We have life and joy and the pungent taste of love, true love, love that fears nothing.
If all your life you’ve been taught (as most Catholics have been taught), “Jesus was nice, you be nice, too,” you’ve been taught a lie.  He loves us with a love that is not “nice”.  He loves us with a love that would do anything for us.  He loves us with a love that shocks and disturbs us.  The cross is never “nice”.
And that’s how we should love, too.
Because we are the salt of the earth.  And if we become tasteless, insipid, foolish, limp, lame, lifeless and dull, we are only fit to be thrown out and trampled under foot.

Patrick O’Brian on Land

Supposedly people are drawn to fiction that fills a need in their lives, so that lonely women read romance novels, and, as Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey observed in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), “dull men in offices read detective stories.”  Exceptions occur, so that men who have traveled a lot and who enjoy firearms tend to prefer adventure stories, from Treasure Island (1883) to King Solomon’s Mines (1885).  In that line is Patrick O’Brian’s The Road to Samarcand (1954).

O’Brian (1914-2000) is best known for his popular series of twenty sea-faring novels featuring Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.  Published between 1969 and 1999, they have fiercely loyal fans, and in 2003 the series inspired a theatrical film, Master and Commander:  The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe.  The movie won two Academy Awards, and the books earned O’Brian the status of Commander of the Order of the British Empire, conferred by Queen Elizabeth II.  These stories abound in complex characters, vivid descriptions, and minute and accurate details; all the same, the dialogue and arcana of nautical life during the early 1800s leave some readers bewildered and bored.

For those of us who want to like O’Brian’s sea stories but can’t finish one, The Road to Samarcand comes to the rescue.  Unfortunately, that tale set on dry land remains relatively unknown:  O’Brian’s obituary in The Daily Telegraph made no mention of it, and his obituary in The Economist simply said, “Several pre-Aubrey novels sank without a trace.”  For a re-issue of this pre-Aubrey novel, Kirkus Reviews (15 May, 2007) said of it, “A likable if far-fetched jaunt, O’Brian lacks the mastery of his material which he will show in the Aubrey/Maturin series.”

Without debating what adventure story is not far-fetched, or whether far-fetchedness necessarily makes an adventure story likable, it is safe to say that O’Brian’s The Road to Samarcand stands ready for someone whose desert island library would include John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.  As with those far-fetched adventures, this one has pursuers and pursued, and as with Treasure Island, it features a teenage boy with the unlikely daring and maturity of Joe and Frank Hardy.  Like King Solomon’s Mines, it recounts an improbable trek across terrain that for most of us seems as mythical as Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Oddly enough, the road to Samarcand begins in the China Seas, where our heroes are sailing their schooner, the Wanderer.  Our heroes are Derrick, orphan son of American missionaries; Terence Sullivan, his maternal uncle and master of the Wanderer; Sandy Ross, a Scottish friend of Sullivan and business partner; Olaf Svenssen, a Swedish crewman; Li Han, the ship’s Chinese cook.  Worth mentioning is Derrick’s faithful half-mastiff, Chang.  Once on land, having survived a typhoon, they meet up as arranged in Tchao-King with Professor Ayrton, Derrick’s father’s cousin and an archaeologist from Oxford.

On ship, the discussion had been what to do about Derrick’s education, whether to send him to school in England, Scotland, or the United States.  His preference, to stay on board and learn to become a master mariner, was vetoed, and even Li Han argued for the boy being sent to school, telling him, “Why, in time you might be an official and never do anything for remainder of earthly existence.  You could grow long fingernails, and become obese and dignified.”  Silently, Derrick took into account that his friend admired not only Confucius, but also President William McKinley.

Enter the rumpled and tweedy Professor Ayrton to offer a compromise:  School after an archaeological journey to Samarcand.  Along the way, the professor would teach Derrick ancient Greek while keeping an eye out for ruins and what were then called Oriental antiquities.  Despite the professor’s gift for languages, his pedantic approach to learning American slang casts doubt on his grasp of reality.

Sullivan and Ross decide to accompany them, uneasy with the professor’s seeming obliviousness to the dangers, whether geographical or political.  When Sullivan offers to teach Ayrton how to shoot, the professor dismisses the idea, saying that surely along the way there will always be someone who can shoot game for food.

Shooting something for dinner being the least of their worries looming ahead, the Wanderer goes into dry dock, and Olaf, Li Han, and Chang round out the party.  Joined by Chingiz, a young Mongol nobleman known to Sullivan and who saves Derrick’s life, they set out from the city they knew as Peking, eventually traversing the old Silk Road that from the days before the Roman Empire connected East and West.

A born storyteller, O’Brian knew well the old rule for writers of fiction:  Always keep your hero in trouble.  At every turn the expedition encounters unpredictable hazards, from being entrusted with rare Chinese carved jade tablets to contending with rival warlords, and as they enter the snowy mountains, ever lurking is the threat of Yeti.

Keenly aware of the century’s most pernicious scourges, state socialism and militant Islam, O’Brian confronted his heroes with Soviet troops zealous to advance international Communism, and the carved jade tablets must be guarded from Muslim iconoclasts.  As Ayrton explains, since “there is an element of religious fanaticism in their attack, they may, if victorious, go so far as to destroy” the ancient jades, “many of which, I am glad to say, are graven images, and anathema to these bigots.”

Of course, a reader with sensitivities refined sixty years after O’Brian wrote could indict the book for its own kind of bigotry.  Someone trained in North Atlantic suburban comfort to be perpetually offended and aggrieved, where daring to disagree brands one a hater, might be triggered by an all-male cast of characters, not to mention pipe tobacco and guns.  Those readers are advised to avoid this book and to seek therapy from R. Lee Ermey.

Page-turning adventure, however far-fetched, puts O’Brian’s story in a long literary tradition that extends from Homer’s Odyssey to the Travels of Marco Polo, from stories by Rudyard Kipling to the cartoon exploits of Jonny Quest.  This unsung predecessor to O’Brian’s acclaimed chronicles of Aubrey and Maturin shares their cliff-hanging suspense as well as their belief in friendship, loyalty, and pressing on, come what may.  A rainy day, some Darjeeling, and being transported through a book onto the road to Samarcand:  As Li Han would say, “What felicity!”