On Tricking Yourself


EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE A whole lot of things will click together and I have to write them down lest I forget them. This is more of a ramble than anything else, but maybe it will point us towards some conversations.

This semester’s class on Church History is reading James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church from the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium. While the text is a survey rather than an in-depth examination, more like a dictionary than a textbook, many of the short articles highlight something important I’d missed previously. I’ve greatly enjoyed, for example, reading how the heresies of Arianism and Iconoclasm are not “one and done” moments but rather very extended arguments in the Church’s history.

The blurb on Aquinas (about three pages worth of text) really only cruised at a very high altitude over St Thomas’ thinking, but it highlighted the importance of the intellect.

It may seem very surface-y but something about the way all the words are strung together helped me to grasp some important elements in Aquinas which I’m happy to string together for you here. This will be equally surface-only. I’m still meditating on all of this.

  1. Evil does not exist. It is a deficiency of good. Just as cold is only a lack of heat, and darkness is only an absence of light, so also evil is only an absence of good.
  2. We misunderstand what is good. We do not have differing ideas of what is good but rather a failure of the intellect to grasp the Good and to understand what is the Highest Good.
  3. Notice that it is our intellect that fails first. We’re not thinking rightly, we don’t grasp all the points correctly so when the intellect passes the information on to the conscience, the latter is not properly informed. It makes the wrong call.
  4. No one loves evil for evil’s sake. Humans love what is good for the sake of good. Something is loved because it is perceived as good. The intellect has convinced us – using the wrong information – that something is good when, in fact, it is not or when it’s only not good enough. Even those who love what is clearly evil (from the outside) do so because they think it is the best thing for them or for others.
  5. Those who are loving something that’s not the best for them have made choices and – as St Paul says – their conscience has been seared. It’s sacrificed the freedom of future choice by making the same choice so many times. It’s no longer looking to make another decision and, if it wanted to, it would be incapable of doing so without Grace.
  6. Acting on Evil, then, becomes of failure of intellect, of conscience, and of love. But it is only a failure in that one does not go far enough: one stops short in “the race set before us” and does not “strain for the prize”. One gets distracted. On this last item, CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters make the point very well. “But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

Having all of the above sort of hit me at once as a result of reading that one paragraph in Hitchcock’s History, I drew two conclusions:

This, firstly, is an argument for why we cannot judge someone: they are loving as best they can. We cannot judge love, in fact, to do so would be to damn the virtue we would hope to grow. Reading the books of the New Testament we see this in action: only “insiders” get the strong words. Jesus, Paul, and the other voices in the text, woo and flirt with folks outside of the covenant, outside of the Church, to draw them forward. Strong words of condemnation are reserved for those who ought to know better or those who claim to. Only after you have learned what love actually is can you be accused of failing to love properly.

Secondly, this is a description of how we fail in other areas as well, areas beyond questions of morality, as such. We see the Church as an institution, or as “my parish” or as a political force – each of which is true – and we love it. But we fail to see the Church as the Bride of Christ present in all eternity as Saints and souls in purgatory, the Body of Christ active as his hands and in the world, as the minister of mercy, and as the sacrament of salvation (and so much more). We love only a little and are satisfied – or angry – when that little bit lives up or fails to live up to our personal desires. We see the human person as only XYZ without realizing the whole icon of God present not only in each individual, but in all of humanity together, as one of the Fathers pointed out, many human persons, but one human nature. We trick ourselves into a sort of theological synecdochery where we not only confuse the part for the whole, but we accept the part as good enough and get satisfied – without ever digging deeper. We love not as best as we can but rather we fail to realize there’s so much more to love, so much more to the Church, so much more to the Holy Mysteries, so much more to the Human Person. We love the surface, but not the heart. Then, if someone else also loves “only a little part” but happens to love a “different little part”, we fight with them.

We trick ourselves into hell.

The Mask of Halloween

Yer Host on the Hill of Tara, circa 1990. Photo by L Chow


NB: I edit and repost this essay most every year, I know. Archive has this going back to at least 2006, although it says there that I was reposting it again, so, at least 2005? Anyway, it’s still good.

On the Hill of Tara, seat of the High Kings of Ireland, there is a mound with a passage burrowing into its heart. This hill is called the Mound of Hostages. Once a year, as the sun passes the half-way point between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solistice, the sunlight stabs through the passage and illuminates three spirals carved on the wall at the back of the mound. What does that mean? We don’t know. The Celts did not leave us anything in writing and all the written content we have about them was drafted by Christians long after the fact. It does indicate that the half-way point from Autumn to Winter was important for some reason. But it doesn’t tell us why. Although the midway point shifts slightly from year to year and also drifts in time because of the Precession of the Equinox, it’s important to note that currently the halfway point is always around 7 November. A thousand years ago, that would be closer to 1 November, closer to the date we know in the Church as All Saints Day.

Is there a connection between the celebration of the one, a pagan holiday and the other, a Christian liturgical feast? Some moderns – both Christian and Pagan – would like to think so.

A good deal of the modern evangelical, fundamentalist, and Eastern Orthodox (mostly-convert) complaints about Halloween are just badly disguised ultra-Protestant, Anti-Roman Catholicism. In some cases (Jack Chick comes to mind) it’s not very thinly disguised at all. Other sects often succumb to such uber-frummery too. When I was first Chrismated as Orthodox my only reply was “it’s not my holiday”. In this I was following my priest – Fr J. We were all forgetting that the Orthodox Western Rite folks all celebrate All Saints Day with the Christian West; so, in fact, some Orthodox do celebrate All Hallows’ Eve. So also do Roman Catholics, Anglicans and some (most?) Lutherans. In other words, a majority of Christians around the world have this day on their liturgical calendar. Did they all steal it from the Pagans?

It is my assertion that the celebration of All Hallows eve as such is Christian; that is was never Pagan. So, how do we get here? It starts with a Greek Christian far removed from the Irish.

The East
St John Chrysostom (4th Century) set a celebration in memory of all the “other” saints on the Sunday after Pentecost. Since he did not have universal jurisdiction, this holiday would have, of course, only applied to those dioceses and parishes under his patriarchate. This celebration seemed like a good idea and it spread to various churches in the East and the West.

The West
In AD 609 or 610, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the ancient Roman Pantheon as a Christian Church. The new name was St Mary and All Martyrs and the anniversary of the consecration, 13 May, was a feast celebrated in all the western Church. It still is, in fact. This was the beginning of All Saints’ Day in the West.

About 100 years later another Pope, Gregory III, dedicated another All Saints’ chapel – this one in St Peter’s – on 1 November and began to commemorate the feast on that day. The next Pope Gregory made that feast (on 1 November) of universal practice.

The Roman Martyrology, still read daily in monastic orders, tells the story this way:

Festívitas ómnium Sanctórum, quam in honórem beátæ Dei Genitrícis Vírginis Maríæ et sanctórum Mártyrum Bonifátius Papa Quartus, cum templum Pántheon tértio Idus Maji dedicásset, célebrem et generálem instítuit agi quotánnis in urbe Roma. Sed Gregórius item Quartus póstmodum decrévit, eándem festivitátem, quæ váriis modis jam in divérsis Ecclésiis celebrabátur, in honórem ómnium Sanctórum solémniter hac die ab univérsa Ecclésia perpétuo observári.

The Festival of All Saints, which Pope Boniface IV, after the dedication of the Pantheon, ordained to be kept generally and solemnly every year on the 13th of May, in the city of Rome, in honour of the blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and of the holy martyrs. It was afterwards decreed by Gregory IV that this feast, which was then celebrated in many dioceses, but at different times, should be on this day kept by the whole Church in honour of all the saints.

All of these Christian dates are very important because these dates mean the festival of All Saints (and thus the Vigil the night before) is a feast of the pre-Schism Patriarchate of Rome. 31 October/1 November is not a Pagan festival: it is a traditional celebration of the unified, Roman and Orthodox Church – if you insist on limiting that title to western events before the 11th century. It’s important to note two things: (a) this new feast in the West begins after the coming of St Augustine to Canterbury in 587 (when the Roman Church first met Samhain); and (b) it doesn’t begin on 1 November. These are important points because erroneously claim that Augustine baptized a pagan feast day he found in England and that it came back to Rome. Nope. Sorry.

In point of fact, Augustine met Christians already present in England. Where did they come from? From Ireland. Patrick had converted the Irish 100 years before Augustine ever got around to visiting the area. The Celtic Church knew nothing of All Saints Day – it hadn’t been invented yet. And the Catholics of Ireland had no need to have a pagan feast day baptized for their conversion: they were already Catholics. Augustine rather famously did baptize a lot of local pagan shrines: but it was to win converts from the Angles and the Saxons – not the Celts.

The Roman Church was commemorating the consecration of an important religious shrine. The Western Calendar is actually has several feast days like that: the celebration of a church dedicated to X becomes a feast day of X-itself. The anniversary of the consecration of the holiest church in Jerusalem becomes Holy Cross Day. The anniversary of the consecration of a church dedicated to St Michael becomes Michaelmas. The anniversary of the consecration of a church dedicated to All the Saints becomes All Saints Day.

The Pagans
We note that Pagan holidays were not celebrated on fixed calendars.  Not every Pagan European culture had a festival at this point in the year – the late fall or beginning point of winter. Pre-Christian Rome did not have a festival at this point of the year at all, although we’ve cited the Hill of Tara – which was outside of the Empire. Ireland had that passage grave but we cross a line if we can assume – from such scanty evidence – that the entire island of Eire was on the same cultural calendar.

The bards, writing in the Christian era, report the feast between Autumn and Winter was celebrated on the Hill of Tara with the Ard Rí – the High King. Bonfires were lit that night. We don’t know that the Irish even had anything to say about the dead on this night. Anthropologically it would make sense for this festival to be a harvest festival and it might be that the dead might be invoked or appeased at harvest time… but that’s it. Since the ancient religions did not write stuff down, we have no way of knowing from Pagan sources in situ if the Festival of Tara was anything to do specifically with the dead or the “Veil between the worlds” getting thin. We don’t even know it was “New Year” for them – we may have made that up too. 

The Lia Fail, The Stone of Destiny, on the Hill of Tara, circa 1990

We can say “might” and “maybe” all we want. Does the passage grave indicate the timing of the Feast of Tara? Does it validate the bardic story at all? We don’t know, although it’s a good guess. It does show that the astronomical point – not a calendar date, per se – was marked at Tara. Ditto the other bits of pagan Ireland and England: New Grange marks the winter solstice, not 21 December. Stonehenge marks the Summer Solstice (among other events). The Pagans in the only part of Europe not conquered by Rome didn’t use the Roman Calendar – and so wouldn’t have known what 31 October was – or 1 November.

31 October as Celtic Santeria.
Modern Neopagans take up this theme – using American Christian customs! – when they say “Christians stole our holiday”. In fact, 1 November was never their holiday – it was, however, the closest Christian party to their own historical party at 15 Degrees Scorpio. So they moved their party a week or so over and stopped counting days by small spirals carved on walls and tried this new Roman invention – the Fixed Calendar. They did this so as not to be continually persecuted by the Christians – they wanted to blend in. I’m clear on that – and Christians need to be honest about our persecution of other religions throughout our history.

The Celtic tribes covered up their pagan traditions with a Catholic overlay. But the Church didn’t do that, as such: the Pagans pretended to be Catholics to blend in. It was not the Church adopting Pagan Customs. We see the same blending-in in Yoruban cultures where their Afro-Caribbean and South American cultures adopt Catholicism as a cover for their African Gods. A statue of  St Martin de Porres is worshiped as an image of the Yoruban deity, Elegba. Does this mean that St Martin was stolen from the Yoruban peoples? No: it means the Yoruban people, to cover up and yet maintain their ancient faith, use Catholic symbols. Any priest would see only a statue of a very holy Dominican Tertiary. Likewise, we should more honestly say the ancient Pagans, to avoid persecution by the Church, stole a Christian Holiday.

Like other pagan festivals some of this stuff may have carried over: the “bonfire holidays” in England are mostly pagan festivals that were transferred to Christian days. This is especially clear on St John’s day in the Summer when they light the midsummer bonfires. This tradition of moving traditions to the biggest party continued through history: in England, now, the Mid-Autumn bonfires are not lit on Halloween, but rather on Guy Fawkes Night (Nov 5) which is coincidentally much closer to 15 Degrees Scorpio.

Bad Victorian Mythology
Costumes? Trick or Treat? Pumpkins? Mostly bad Victorian-era Scholarship – and that mostly American, not European at all. Like us moderns, the Americans of the Victorian era had a desire for things that “feel ancient” and, like us, they tended to make stuff up when they didn’t know the answer. Let’s just call it “ancient tradition”. Americans feel guilty sometimes that most countries have indoor plumbing older than our culture.

Our American custom was, until recently, to becostume ourselves and trick-or-treat on Thanksgiving! In fact, this may go back to a Roman Catholic custom on St Martin’s day, 11 November, which is a European Thanksgiving feast. It was also the custom in some places to dress in costumes on St Martins day. Some even have children going door to door on this day. Coincidentally, this was also – for a few hundred years – the Julian Calendar Date for 31 October. So, make of that what you will.

It is this odd American Thanksgiving custom which was moved to American Halloween in the early 20th Century and, as things happen it is the “American Style” Halloween that is only now being imported into Europe. It’s our American customs, superimposed on All Hallows Eve that we now deck out as “ancient” and then call pagan. So follow this: Prot Americans adopt Catholic Customs from St Martin’s Day, move them to Thanksgiving (which was, really, a bit too late in the year to go trick or treating); then we culturally move them to a Catholic Holiday, commercialize them, market them to the rest of the world and then – to validate it – claim it’s not mid-20th Century Marketing, but rather Ancient Celtic Tradition… and poof! we’ve all been duped into spreading the marketing ploy.

Everything else we claim to know about the holiday is from this American Marketing. So we like to blame wearing masks on the ancient Celts. We claim the sweets used to be foods left outside, offered to the Ghosts. The Jack O’Lantern is a candle lit to show the dead how to get back to their homes. All of this is without proof of course – positive or negative. The ancient religions were not literate. They didn’t write it down in guidebooks on How to Be a Druid. Having made up a pretty fun holiday (admit it!) it caught on! Even Europeans now like this idea.

In short: the Church had no need for a Pagan Holiday, but there was a counter-need.

Aztec Skulls

The Aztecs?
Because huge parts of America are, largely, encultured by folks from Mexico and further South, it’s worth talking about the Day of the Dead, Dìa de los Muertos. It’s one of my favourite times of the year to switch cultures: it’s practically a public Holiday in San Francisco. We may have no idea at all what the ancient Celts did, but the Day of the Dead is a living, evolving tradition. Some Protestant commentaries are quick to point out that this is Paganism+Catholicism. But it is Catholicism – not paganism – that rules the day. When it is the other way around, it is a stolen holiday (again, stolen by the Neopagans).

The Aztec (Ancient Mexican) Calendar had almost 30 days dedicated to the dead in or around the Gregorian month of August. These were dedicated to the “Little Dead” (children) and the Adult Dead. These were the ghosts of human sacrifices, as well as the ghosts of the beloved dead.

Within a few decades of the Spanish conquest, all the traditions of these festivals had been transferred to the Catholic feasts of All Saints and All Souls. The Church didn’t move them there – nor did she “take over” the Aztec feasts. Instead – as in the case of the Celts and the other pagans – local traditions were, effectively, baptized when they got there. There were no human sacrifices anymore. But people still wanted to commemorate their dead.

For Pagans this was a way to blend in, a half-way ground. Yet these ancient traditions were seen by the Church as way-pointers on the way to Christ who is The Truth and therefore all things true point to him. There is nothing to be afraid of in the truth: nothing at all. And anything that really is True really is Christ.

Now does any of this mean that the modern, Non-Christian silliness that goes on in Schools is really-Christian or even Anti-Christian? No. No more than singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is an act of Christian piety although I know some who would file a lawsuit nonetheless. That said, let’s be honest: most of the secular version of holy days that happen now – from Christmas to Easter to Halloween – are decidedly not Christian and should be avoided. The revelries that happen on this night are lewd, crude and are often designed to mock Christianity. That is Satanic. 

But bobbing for apples, trick or treating – or using this day and season to commemorate the dead and the departed are not Satanic at all. In fact, it’s an orthodox and catholic practice that is so evidently healthy that even the pagans took it over: All Saints Day (and the Vigil) and All Souls Day and the whole month of November. Should the kids be allowed to have that fun? Well, that’s up to the parents.

The New Punic War

The Church in Russia views Moscow as “The Third Rome”. It’s been this way for a while. Rome was Rome, but then Rome fell – and there was a filioque, but lay that aside as gently as you can. Then Constantinople was Rome, and the heathen Rus even tried to sack it. But then it fell to the Muslims. (Istanbul is Constantinople, don’t you know that?) So Moscow became the Third Rome, but history has poo-pooed that as a political reality. See, the West kinda glommed onto it: Charlemagne, the Holy Romans, Napoleon, the British Empire, and last, the good ole US of A, all took this place on the World Stage. And, even as Moscow fell, and her Church as well, to the Revolution, various other places became Novus Roma: In Tempore Bello. Perhaps Moscow has watched all of us like Carthage, wandering about with Elephants, ruining her place in the Sun?

We don’t like mess. Americans don’t like mess. Bloody meat may be fine and fashionable, but not on a carcass. Farmed venison is nice, but hunters are not. Armed criminals are bad, but armed citizens protecting themselves is pure evil. We come up with names to avoid mistakes: venison, again, is nice, but deer meat is kinda scary. Abortion is a good, shooting up a school though, that’s senseless violence. We are the same politically: we love results, but we don’t want to see the blood. Blood makes us uncomfortable, results make us happy.  We are unhappy with “boots on the ground” wars. We’ve already imaged the people out, but just their boots are bad, too.

As Americans, we generally like petitions, giant quilts, and million man marches or other methods of acceptable protest. Such protest protect our way of life and our self-image. It makes us look Good and Peaceful Yet Concerned with Justice™. We are so unlike those other, violent people. We are building, and spreading, Civilization! They are destroying it with their protest. We refuse to admit that they are really protesting us by proxy, our activities in their homes. It is only our secular, money-centered, greedy culture they are protesting.

Russia, just to take you back to history class, remembers how the US and the UK used the Soviet Army in WW2 to destroy Hitler’s strength: making hamburger in the meat grinder of Stalingrad. Then, just when we said we would help her rebuild, we announced, “We can’t help communists”. In walking away from our former ally we were hoping that in Russia’s weakness she couldn’t beat us to oil in several places around a war-torn globe. We gave Stalin a financial failure, a reason to renege on all his promises to his people. To no small degree, the blood of 50,000,000 Soviet citizens is on our hands. But we had muscle cars, Elvis, and West Germany!

Much of the rest of the world has been fighting – with guns – against dictators we installed and supported; who in exchange for that support made possible our way of life. We remember Kennedy because he failed to pull this tinkering off in Cuba. But we set up the Cuban Banana Republic therefore they had their revolution. Read up on the School of the Americas. And Iran-Contra. And the Philippines. Grenada. Cristiani. And the Panama Canal. And the entire history of the world since the Louisiana Purchase. And then there are the Native tribal peoples in all of the US, including Hawaii and Alaska. We manipulate, divide, and rule. It’s our MO. But please don’t show us. That’s what made us so uncomfortable with Viet Nam: we could see it. People are worried that Russia hacked our election. So what? This is what we’ve been doing to other people forever. See this about Honduras. See this one about Egypt. Palestine? Iraq? Chile? Ah… let me go on.

Not one president in this or the last Century (at least) is exempt from this critique. The World gave a Nobel Peace Prize to the man who became the greatest Drone Warrior of all time – and now we call him Classy. Please don’t remind us that our boots and our drones kill people. We have never had a family so classy. Never.

When the kids rioted in the 60s and 70s we were annoyed at their destruction of property. We felt the same regarding riots in the 80s, 90s, 00s, and now. We never want to rock the boat too much because, well: cheap gas is good, be you Democrat or Republican. Cheap plastic junk is good, be you shopping for plastic junk at Walmart or IKEA and Target. We want to feel good about our recycling – we don’t care that we have to sell our garbage to China because no one here is willing to do the work. We like our bottled water we don’t care we’re ruining Fiji’s ecosystem, or that it takes gas and pollution to get get our bottles here with all speed. We don’t shoot children in schools, it’s less traumatic to kill them in the womb. We don’t chop the heads off Christians on video! We just drain their charity coffers with lawsuits and force them to pay for things they can’t morally support. We are making bloodless martyrs. Cool, Civilization, cool.

If stuff happens under DJT the way people think it’s going to and we go more than 4 months without some sort of revolt – and I don’t mean Occupy Central Park, I mean revolt – I’ll call BS. I will not, however, be surprised. We have never been willing to tell our freely elected powers that be that we would rise up and overthrow them in the name of freedom… because, really, we have our freedom, the freedom that we want – cheap gas and plastic junk. We don’t very much care that everyone else is paying for it. In the mid-50s we redefined our freedom to be the depth of the produce section at the A&P and the number of car salesmen we could find in the phonebook. We made fun of the Soviets for standing in line for toilet paper. They had to pick from a one party ticket. We had two! Trump will be no different, as long as gas and plastic junk stays cheap. We were happy with Obama’s corporate welfare program for aging insurance companies. We even acted like it was new: not the same welfare that propped up Iacocca’s Chrysler, or the Savings and Loan scandal, or the Military Contractors. As long as the status quo includes my latest gadgets, I’m good, thanks.

This is how we’ve slipped over the years. Once our freedoms are redefined as consumptions, we let someone else’s power corrupt our corruption. If you have cheap tiny Asian fingers in your Christmas decorations, your computers, your watches, your clothing then you did this. I did this. I don’t really care who you voted for, what your race is, or any other of your petty identity issues. While we sit around worrying about what might happen to us, we, as a country, have been making that very thing happen everywhere else at least since the Spanish American War.

To the extent that Russia did anything at all to make this happen (and I like to imagine it was a lot) Russia has helped unmask us to ourselves. Not to the rest of the world – they already knew us.  I don’t think Russia really likes DJT. He’s not gym-sexy and smart like Ramzan Kadyrov. He’s not crafy like Putin. He’s not clever, even, like Medvedev. I think Russia supported Trump exactly because he will be – in public – what we’ve always been in private. Bullies. Trump hasn’t the diplomatic ability to be two-faced. He hasn’t the skills to be diplomatic at all. Putin can now point at us and say “We have never expected anything less from this nation, but at least we will hear it out loud. We won’t be stabbed in the back.” All of this however, takes us out of the way of the Third Rome. We become Carthage. We will burn ourselves up.

If Trump turns into the nightmare he’s supposed to be and I don’t see something exciting and even revolutionary, then, we will all know that the cheap plastic stuff is very important indeed.

May you live in interesting times. Carthago Delenda Est.