My Halloween Post at the Register: Moar Ghosts!

cbI never get tired of talking about ancient belief in ghosts and apparitions. We’ve reduced ghosts to the trivial or the easily dismissable, from Casper to cranks to dopes on the Discovery channel bumping into each other in grainy green night vision footage.

Ghosts stories, however, are not merely told in all cultures: they’re quite prominent. There’s a very simple reason for that: the ghost story points to the afterlife, and we want to know what lies beyond that dark veil that separates the living from the dead.

I’ve written about Augustine and Evodius before, but recent reading has deepened my appreciated for their exchange and changed my perspective a bit.

Here’s the beginning:

If I asked you to describe what happens to the soul after death, how would you do it? How would you explain it to someone who asked?

We know what we believe. At the point of death, the soul is subject to the particular judgment, and either is ushered into the divine presence or damned for all eternity. Those who die in their sins, but not in mortal sin, undergo a purgation: a cleansing to make the soul worthy to enter the courts of the Lord. Since Augustine, we’ve understood this as a process with a temporal element, despite our understanding of a God who transcends time. It allows us to grasp the ungraspable and imagine the soul after death as embarking upon a journey, helped along by our prayers, alms, and devotions.

But what is it like, practically? Anything we use–vision, light, pleasure, notions of place, etc–rely on material to make them function, which why we understand them metaphorically. That wasn’t the case among many early Christians. In giving alms, many believed they wereliterally transferring treasure to heaven. In book four of his endlessly fascinating Dialogues, St. Gregory the Great describes a vision of the afterlife in which a mansion made of gold bricks awaits a rich man who gave away his money.

The problem of the fate of the soul exercised the mind of Augustine, but he was content to draw a veil over much of it and acknowledge that we simply cannot know all the details of how a soul leaves the body at the point of death and enters into eternity. But the fate of the soul was of immense and pressing interest to his flock and his correspondents. He was besieged with questions about it from people who wanted to know if their actions, customs, and rituals were effective in protecting the soul after death and seeing it safely to heaven.

Read the rest.

Bones Found in Pub May Be Catholic Martyr

This week’s history column at the National Catholic Register is called A Saint’s Bones Recovered, An Anti-Catholic Plot Remembered, and it’s about the Oates Plot and the possibly recovery of the relics of one of its victims. Here’s a bit:

St. John Plessington was executed in 1679 in England for the crime of being of a Catholic priest. Now, the Diocese of Shrewsbury, England is hoping to raise funds for a DNA test to prove that some bones found in a pub long ago are, in fact, those of the saint.

St. John was killed in a wave of anti-Catholic violence triggered by the Oates Plot: a largely forgotten corner of Catholic history. The incident, also known as the Popish Plot, takes its name from Titus Oates, a bizarre figure who skipped from one strange incident to the next, leaving chaos and death his wake. He was a prolific liar and fraud, and motivated not so much by ideology as by a desire to cause chaos.

Read the rest.


Luther’s Pact With the Devil


Luther & the harmonious union with Lucifer, Leipzig, 1535

Great Moments in Reformation History! Medieval gossips claimed that Luther’s mother was seduced by a demon disguised as a jewelry merchant, and that the demon then counseled Martin throughout his wayward journey into heresy. After a visit to Rome, so the stories go, he felt shabbily treated and asked his father how he could get his revenge. “Write a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer,” was the demon’s suggestion.

Another legend tells of where Luther got his new ideas. One night a monk visited him in his chamber and asked him about papal errors. The monk persisted for some time until Luther noticed his taloned hands and ejected him. (See print above.) The monk-demon vanished with (I am not making this up, although someone else might have) a thunderous fart that stunk up the room for days.

There’s an interesting biographical element to these stories: Luther did claim to be harried by demons for much of his life. There’s a story of him throwing an inkpot at one, and others of his scatalogical, poo-flinging battles with Satan.

Luther loved foul references (I shall “throw [the devil] into my anus, where he belongs,”) and deployed them often. Reformation historian Heiko Oberman quotes him saying to Satan,

“But if that is not enough for you, you Devil, I have also sh*t and p*ssed; wipe your mouth on that and take a hearty bite.”

Paging Dr. Freud….

Lest you think the Luther-is-the-devilspawn talk was all on the Papist side, here’s how our heretical friends saw the pope:



And here we are in 2015, with Germans still making trouble for the church.

Crypto-Catholics At Jamestown?

The archaeology feeds have been buzzing with news of a discovery at a dig in Jamestown, Virginia. The graves of four people are being excavated, among them prominent leader Captain Jeffrey Archer, one of the leading  opponents of Captain John Smith. This was found with Archer’s coffin (in situ):


Here it is cleaned up:


Inside they found fragments of bones (obviously relics) and a holy water ampulla. This is a 3D recreation of the inside.


It’s a reliquary.

Archer was an important leader who was there from the beginning until his death in the harsh winter of 1609/10, when he was given a respectful burial at a time when other settlers may have been reduced to cannibalism.

Jamestown was a Protestant colony, and at the time it was founded Catholic recusants, such as Archer’s father, were being persecuted back home in England. Bringing the scourge of popery to the first permanent English colony in the new world would have been extremely unusual. James Fort was founded only two years after the Gunpowder Plot and the Papal Recusants Act requiring Catholic to take the Oath of Allegiance denying papal authority over the king.  James I may not have been a monster like Elizabeth I, but he hardly would have wanted to plant Catholics in a new world that he was trying to seize from the Spanish. Catholics were never to be trusted.

But now we know that Catholics were at Jamestown. The recent excavations have uncovered rosary beads, a crucifix, and holy medals. Remember that the Reformation in England was not driven by a groundswell of popular belief, but imposed by a tyrant on a population that was fiercely Catholic. Remnants of Catholicism went underground.

And some, it appears, made their way to the new world.


The NAACP Sets Its Sights on Stone Mountain

Used under Creative Commons.

Used under Creative Commons.

The figures of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson carved into the face of Georgia’s Stone Mountain form the largest bas-relief in the world. That they also depict three men who took up arms against their nation and helped plunge this country into its bloodiest period in history, all in the name of a vile institution that even a moral idiot could see needed to end, is one of those disturbing and uncomfortable facts of history.

But it is a fact of history, just like the Southern states’ conflicted regard for their own past,  with pride in those who fought for their homeland running headlong into the demonstrably evil cause for which they fought. History is complex and ugly.

I’m happy if your ancestors were always on the right side of every fight. Not every American’s were, and the monuments littering Southern states testify to a troubling history that mixes pride, shame, and, yes, pure racism. Some of these monuments and flags were made to defy efforts for racial equality and express contempt for black Americans, while others were simply a way to remember political and military leaders who mattered to the community, and whom the people thought should be remembered.

I’ve never been part of a people conquered in war. I can’t speak to the psychological dynamics that cause a defeated people to raise up monuments to their heroes, but it’s real and it’s there and we don’t make it go away by engaging in acts of historical revisionism and erasure.

I don’t think any flag of rebellion should be flying above any government building in this country, period. Either they’re rebels or they’re Americans. They don’t get it both ways. They lost a long time ago, and they needed to be corrected again when they tried to deny the basic human dignity of black people during the civil rights era. We’ve come a long way since then, and flying rebel flags is a rebuke to the entire country.

But as with so many things, people always go too far. Lowering a rebel flag from a statehouse is the right thing to to do. Stripping confederate symbols from gift shops at historical sites (as they did in Gettysburg) or removing The Dukes of Hazzard from TV are merely the acts of frightened and ignorant children. Modern American society can’t seem to find the line between reacting and over-reacting.

History is complex and messy and unyielding. We can’t erase it, and attempts to blot out the unpleasant parts only increase the risk of our forgetting them entirely. We certainly shouldn’t do it for purely emotional reasons.

But now the Atlanta NAACP is calling for the bas-relief on Stone Mountain to be blasted away: a carving that is the work of Gutzon Borglum, and therefore part of our creative heritage.

People see different things in Stone Mountain. Some see good men and strong leaders fighting for a bad cause. Others may see heroes of white supremacy and view the monument through a lens of race hatred. I won’t presume to imagine what black people think of it. Pain? Racism? Derision? Or merely indifference? Given our nation’s historical illiteracy, with a majority of high school students unable to name our first president, I doubt one in a hundred people even know who’s depicted or what they did.

This diversity of emotional responses is itself held in suspicion by the social justice warriors. Nuance and complexity is frowned upon. Everyone must have a uniform reaction, disapproving of the Designated Bad Things and approving of the Designated Good Things. Thus, Nelson Mandela is always good, despite the complexity of his life and past support for violence and communism. Nathan Bedford Forrest is always bad, despite his sincere attempts at racial reconciliation late in life. The grays vanish under the progressive censor’s revising brush, leaving only dastardly villains and angelic heroes.

Beware the iconoclast, because once started, they never stop. Today it’s Nathan Bedford Forrest and Stone Mountain. Tomorrow it’s Bl. Junipero Serra or George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

We already have an idea of what this kind of thing looks like. It looks like this:


Reenacting A Crusader Battle

crusaderLast week, a group of Russian and Israeli history buffs and reenactors staged the Battle of Hattin, in which Saladin routed the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem near the same extinct volcano in Israel where the original battle was fought July 3rd and 4th, 1187.

Replete with swords, shields and body armor, the group marched 27 kilometers (17 miles) this weekend while re-enacting one of the most significant battles of the Middle Ages. The level of detail went down to the use of wooden and ceramic utensils and hand-woven undergarments reflective of the time.

“It’s a direct way of connecting to history, not through books and not through the computer,” said Genadiy Niznik, who organized the event and heads the only Israeli chapter of the “living history” trend.

About a third of the participants arrived with their elaborate gear from Russia. The project is supported by the Lower Galilee Regional Council.

Read the whole thing to see some great stills from the event. 

The Best Novel You’ve Never Heard Of

It’s a mystery where the mystery is 500 years old, and everyone already knows the solution. Or at least they think they do.

The elusive Miss Tey, one of only a few photos of her.

The elusive Miss Tey, one of only a few photos of her.

The detective is stuck in a hospital bed for the entire novel.

There is no action whatsoever. We never leave the hospital room.

Only three characters have any kind of substantial roles, and only a handful of other characters appear at all.

It was voted Number One on the list of Top Crime Novels of All Time by the Crime Writer’s Association (UK) in 1990.

And it is, indeed, the greatest mystery novel of all time.

The book is The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. I have an omnibus of Tey novels I’d never cracked, but I first heard about this one on a BBC radio show when Peter Hitchens described it as the most important novel he’s ever read. We’ll get to his reasons for saying that in a moment (and they’re good reasons), but who is this author and what is this strange book?

Josephine Tey was the pseudonym of respected playwrite Gordon Daviot, whose “Richard of Bordeaux” ran for 14 months in London and helped make John Gielgud a star. Daviot, it turned out, was also a pseudonym. The real author of all these works was Elizabeth Macintosh, but even that doesn’t tell us much, because Macintosh was intensely private and we know very little about her life. She even kept her final illness a secret, and her few friends, such as Gielgud, only learned about her death when her obituary appeared.

What does matter is that she could write like gangbusters. She shows off a bit of this skill as she assesses and imitates different types of novel which people keep leaving with her hero. One is a typical agrarian novel:

The Sweat and the Furrow was Silas Weekley being earthy and spade-conscious all over seven hundred pages. The situation, to judge from the first paragraph, had not materially changed since Silas’s last book: mother lying-in with her eleventh upstairs, father laid-out after his ninth downstairs, eldest son lying to the Government in the cowshed, eldest daughter lying with her lover in the hay-loft, everyone else lying low in the barn. The rain dripped from the thatch, and the manure steamed in the midden. Silas never omitted the manure. It was not Silas’s fault that its steam provided the only up-rising element the picture. If Silas could have discovered a brand of steam that steamed downward, Silas would have introduced it.

That’s just damn good writing.

In The Daughter of Time, Tey’s series detective, Scotland Yard’s Alan Grant, is stuck in bed with a broken leg, being driven batty by boredom. His friend Marta brings an envelope full of engravings to help him pass that time. Grant likes to read faces. He claims he can tell whether a person is a judge or a defendant by just looking at his face. Among the pictures is a print of King Richard III, and this one begins to work on him.

He knows what schoolboys know about Richard: crouchback, the monster who killed the boys in the tower and stole the crown before suffering an ignominious death on the field at Bosworth.

But of course, that’s Shakespeare, not history.

Grant starts to read about Richard, first in schoolbooks, and then with the help of a researcher at the British Museum, he drills down through layers of legend and pseudo-fact. It’s an interesting process, beginning with the kind of common knowledge everything assumes to be true, then peeling away layers like an onion. He doesn’t start with the goal of proving Richard innocent of the murders, but as “facts” are revealed to be mere propaganda and lies, the real story slowly emerges.

And it is absolutely gripping. Grant gets new material (from books, friends, or research), ponders and discusses it, and one by one two tales are told.

The first is a tale of research. Call it a Research Thriller. Anyone who knows the real thrill of discovery when you’re deep in researching a topic (and readers of some of my longer pieces know I’ve experienced it myself) will understand how engrossing this can be. It’s true detection: finding data, interpreting it, and slotting it into the larger puzzle.

The second is the tale of Richard III, the rise of the utterly vile Tudors in the form of Henry VII, and the disappearance of the princes in the tower. If you think you know this story, you don’t. It may or may not prove that Richard is innocent to your satisfaction, but it will raise a lot of hard-to-answer questions. It will make you want to read more on the subject. And there’s plenty to read.

But its most important quality is the way it cuts through received wisdom to get to truth. This is the reason Peter Hitchens singled it out:

I found myself describing ‘The Daughter of Time’ as ‘one of the most important books ever written’. The words came unbidden to my tongue, but I don’t, on reflection retreat from them. Josephine Tey’s clarity of mind, and her loathing of fakes and of propaganda, are like pure, cold spring water in a weary land. Her story-telling ability is apparently effortless (and therefore you may be sure it was the fruit of great hard work. (As Ernest Hemingway said ‘if it reads easy, that is because it was writ hard’) . But what she loves above all is to show that things are very often not what they seem to be, that we are too easily fooled, that ready acceptance of conventional wisdom is not just dangerous, but a result of laziness, incuriosity and of a resistance to reason.

Yes, exactly. Tey offers one piece of “fact” after another, and then explodes it with a reference to a primary resource that directly disproves it. We learn how rumor and propaganda (specifically Tudor propaganda, of which Shakespeare, peace be upon him, was a master hand) utterly replaced hard fact, and how even subsequent historians merely folded these facts into the old narrative without bothering to see how they make that narrative impossible.

As Grant says about the historians he’s reading, “They seem to have no talent for the likeliness of any situation. They see history like a peep-show; with two-dimensional figures against a distant background.”

Catholics will recognize this immediately because it’s the dominant narrative of mainstream Church history today. The church certainly has her share of dark and shameful moments, but the exaggerated quality of this narrative–the millions tortured and killed, the oppression, the damage done to civilization–is a pure lie concocted largely by Protestant Reformers, political enemies, atheists, and the sensationalist press. As someone who teaches Church history, I read the schoolbooks, just like Grant does in the novel, and I find the same lazy errors and outright lies.

If Richard III is what contemporary records show he was–a good king unseated by a wicked rival with no claim to the throne who actually murdered the princes–then how did the story get turned out around?

And if that piece of history is completely false, what else is?

“Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority,” wrote Sir Francis Bacon in a line that gives the book its title.

Or as Tey says, history is not in the accounts, but in the account books. It’s the little details, not the stories of the victors, that we must look to.

That’s Tey’s gift to you in The Daughter of Time. When you’re done, you won’t take anything at face value, nor should you, even your faith. Probe deeper, ask questions, be a detective. In other words, test everything, hold on to what is true.

UPDATE: I knew when I used the clickbait headline I’d start hearing from people who read and loved it, and it turned out to be a favorite of a large number of Catholic bloggers, including my blogmother Julie D. She has an episode of A Good Story is Hard to Find on Tey.



ISIS Is Destroying Ancient Palmyra

This is the Lion of Al-Lat:


It stood at the entrance the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, and dated to the First or Second Century. It was a product of the great Palmyran civilization, which had a brief but prosperous glory while the Roman Empire was beginning its decline. It was built in honor of  Al-Lat, a pre-Islamic goddess.

It no longer exists.

ISIS has taken over Palmyra, which has a rich cultural heritage, and begun a systematic destruction of all “idols.” Eyewitnesses have described the destruction of the lion with construction equipment, as well as the smashing of cultural treasures in the museum.

The ISIS forces have promised locals that they will not destroy mere ruins, only “idols.” No one believes them.

The Great Colonnade, Palmyra

The Great Colonnade, Palmyra