Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A few childhood memories

I grew up in southern California in the 1950's and '60's, and so had my elementary-school education in the last years of the "old" Catholic Church, that is, the Church before Vatican II. Of course, what you experience in childhood profoundly affects your entire life's outlook, and so my impression of what the Church is and should be was formed in an environment light-years distant from the predicament the Church finds itself in today. Whereas today's Catholic Church in the U.S. is timid, left-leaning, and weak, the Church of my youth was strong, conservative, and vibrantly confident of its role in the nation and the world.

My little parish in Fullerton, California was blessed with a beautiful little mission-style church with ten or twelve magnificent stained-glass windows. I loved being up in the little choir loft. A pair of driveways, parallel to the right side of the sanctuary, led into the courtyard behind, and were separated from each other by a narrow strip of lawn with neat boxwood hedges, with a small shrine to the Virgin Mary at the far end and a flagpole at which the 8th-grade students raised the flag every morning during the Pledge of Allegiance.

Across the driveways was the two-story school building, built in the 20's, with tall windows and hardwood floors. The first floor housed the classrooms for the 5th though 8th grades, the library, the tiny school office, and a closet-sized "store" where you could buy pencils, paper, and other essentials. The second floor housed an auditorium -- home to many a school play and science fair -- and a kitchen. The driveways entered the grounds through an arched colonnade that ran from the school building to the sanctuary. Everything was roofed in red Spanish tile.

Behind the sanctuary was the rectory, home to three priests during my time there -- Frs. Siebert, O'Brien, and O'Malley. (Today, a parish in the L.A. area is lucky to have even one priest it can call its own). Across the courtyard, behind the big school building, were the lunch benches. In the courtyard, beside the rectory, and facing toward the lunch benches as if to bless us while we sat there, was another statue of the Virgin -- donated by a family whose daughter had been killed in a playground accident. Behind the courtyard was a low, cinder-block building, put up in the late '40's, that housed grades 1 through 4. And behind it, finally, was the playground.

That was then.

I knew that the lovely parish church burned to the ground around 1970, a victim either of arson or a misbehaving devotional candle. The warm, homey, mission-like church where I had my first Holy Communion, where I had studied the stained glass for hours, and where I gone to Mass every First Friday with the whole school, was replaced with the sort of "modern" church that was popular back then -- cold and sterile, as much like a warehouse as a church.

I went back there earlier this year, just to see how my old parish and its school had otherwise changed. The new church was still there -- more's the pity. The old two-story school building, with its big windows and hardwood floors, where I had answered Fr. O'Brien's acerbic questions in Confirmation class and been taught by the unflappably sweet-tempered Sister Genevieve Marie, had been torn down, replaced by an ugly, nondescript thing. The pretty lawn, with its shrine to the Virgin and its flagpole, was gone too, removed to make the driveways wider, and the colonnade had been demolished, too. The rectory had been replaced with a concrete-block affair that played host to the priest who came by on Sundays and Wednesdays -- no one really lived there anymore.

The overall impression: shrunken, tawdry, and depressing.

Quite a bit like what the Church in America has become, overall. The physical uglification of the place where I did so much of my growing up is mirrored in the vulgarization of the Church that was so strong and confident.

And that should help to explain a bit further why the imagery of Dover Beach seems to me so vivid and apt:

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-winds, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

An invisible massacre

"The army entered the city, massacred its inhabitants, pillaged and burned it, leaving it in ruins, making prisoners of all who escaped the massacre, and took possession. [The number of dead was such] that one could not make way for himself without crossing over them. The number of prisoners were not less than 30,000 souls."

Whenever the subject of the Crusades comes up these days, one almost always hears about the massacre of the Muslim defenders of Jerusalem when the Crusaders took it in 1099. One also hears about how vividly this is remembered in the Muslim world even today, and how we can hardly blame them for being angry with the West, etc., etc.

But the passage quoted above isn't about Jerusalem, and it isn't about a Crusader conquest.

It's a contemporary account of the Muslim capture and sack of Ani, the capital of Christian Armenia, in 1064 -- thirty-five years before the Crusaders showed up before the walls of Jerusalem. You won't read about it in the mainstream press, or hear about it on the History Channel, though; because it was a Muslim massacre, it's invisible, a non-event. You're not allowed to know about it.

Now, the account above was written by Matthew of Edessa, an Armenian historian living at that time, so one might suspect a certain amount of exaggeration. So how do contemporary Islamic annals describe the taking of Ani?

"They entered the city and killed more inhabitants than one could count, so that many of the Muslims were unable to enter the city because there were so many corpses. They took captive nearly as many as they killed. The happy news of these conquests travelled around these lands and the Muslims rejoiced. The report... was read out in Baghdad in the Caliphal palace, and the Caliph issued a rescript praising and blessing [the Muslim commander at Ani] Arp Arslan."

Dancing in the streets of Baghdad a thousand years ago at the news of the deaths of so many infidels. Dancing in the streets of Gaza four years ago, on 9/11.

Ah, that changeless Religion of Peace.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Paging Charles Martel...

France is in big trouble.

Urban rioting -- almost entirely by Muslim immigrants and their children -- keeps spreading, and though the French government is finally beginning to wake up, their response is still too anemic to stem the rising tide. Civil war may not be entirely out of the question.

The mainstream media is telling us that these "youths" are simply erupting in frustration over high unemployment, poverty, and discrimination, and that religion has nothing to do with it. But if so, why are cries of "Allahu akbar" now being heard more and more often in the streets, as the mayhem spreads and gains strength? Why have so-called moderates among French Muslims issued only ambiguous fatwas against "blind" violence? And why have even those weasel-worded cautions been condemned by other clerics? No, Islam is definitely there; just behind the scenes for now, providing religious cover for anything anyone wants to do.

Some Muslims are already suggesting that the best solution to the underlying problems is the establishment of Muslim enclaves, similar to the millet system in the old Ottoman Empire, which would govern themselves by Sharia law, not the laws of France.

Thirteen hundred years ago, the infant nation of France faced another Muslim challenge. Spain had already fallen to Muslim armies from north Africa, as had the southern French regions of Septimania and Provence. A reconnaissance in force was driving north toward Paris, and the smart money was on a Muslim conquest.

But France had vigorous leadership then. The king's right-hand-man, the mayor of the palace, led an army out to face the foreign marauders, although the Muslim armies were known to be better equipped and well-led. (For one thing, he had only foot soldiers; the Muslims had a large and superb cavalry). When he met the Muslims somewhere near Poitiers sometime in October of 732, he didn't try anything fancy; he simply and grimly held his ground. After a day or two of trying to smash the Frankish shield-wall, the Muslim commanders gave up and went back to Spain. And though their raids into France continued for decades, they never again seriously threatened the existence of an independent France.

The name of that mayor of the palace was Charles, and he soon picked up the sobriquet "Martel" -- the Hammer -- from his soldiers. And so he has come down to us in history as Charles Martel.

France desperately needs another Charles Martel, a brave man who will simply stand his ground, and refuse to let his country be overrun by Islam.