Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Every life is a sermon...

[A talk given to the UK League of the Kingship of Christ by its Treasurer, Michael Hennessy, at St Georges House, Wimbledon, on Saturday 15th June 2002]

"Every minister of holy religion must bring to the struggle the full energy of his mind and all his powers of endurance."

If there is one thing, one single line of text, that could be said to have motivated the tireless apostolic work of Father Vincent McNabb, it is this line from the encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII. This great papal "call to arms", issued by Holy Mother Church just weeks before Father McNabb was ordained as a priest in the Dominican Order at the age of 23, illuminated all of his work and action: after Holy Scripture and the works of St Thomas it held pride of place in his heart. 

This should perhaps not be so surprising since he was a Dominican working for a large portion of his life in the slums of England, and Rerum Novarum was written - it is said - by Cardinal Zigliara, a noted Dominican scholar, in collaboration with the Pope, and was undoubtedly influenced by the life and work of the great English Cardinal Manning. Yet certainly no priest, no religious in England was as indefatigable as Father McNabb in his desire -- in his work -- to see the blue-print of Rerum Novarum put into action. 

Indeed, those Dominican students he taught while at Hawkesyard Priory remembered being instructed to keep a copy of the encyclical beside their beds: and his biographer (-of-sorts), Father Ferdinand Valentine, recalled being told to memorise the paragraph which Father McNabb thought was most central to Pope Leos work:
"There is general agreement that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient working-men's guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organisation took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is ... still practised by covetous and grasping men. ... [T]he hiring of labour and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself."
It was to those living in the slums and decaying tenements and to those working in the factories and sweat-shops of London that Father McNabb brought these words of the Vicar of Christ: and as a priest he brought to them Christ's power to inspire and to heal.

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It is evident that Father McNabb is hardly known amongst Catholics today. ... Some may be aware that he is associated with that set of ideas known as Distributism (for which he was the principal inspiration); some that he was a well-known Dominican friar who frequently spoke at Parliament Hill and at Speakers Corner to the motley London throng; some that he was at one time a friend of Eric Gill and was connected with his community at Ditchling; perhaps most of those who have heard of him stumbled across his name while reading about Hilaire Belloc or G K Chesterton. All these mental associations are indeed aspects of the man, of the priest; yet he would, I think, like best to have been known for championing Rerum Novarum.

Father McNabb was -- with some notable exceptions, principally within his own Order -- held in high esteem by his contemporaries, even by those such as George Bernard Shaw or the Webbs, founders of the socialist Fabian Society, who could have most been expected to dislike him. During Father McNabb's life, G K Chesterton wrote of him, in the introduction to ... Father McNabb's book, Francis Thompson And Other Essays:
"Now I am nervous about writing here what I really think about Father Vincent McNabb for fear that he should somehow get hold of the proofs and cut it out. But I will say briefly and firmly that he is one of the few great men I have met in my life; that he is great in many ways, mentally and morally and mystically and practically... nobody who ever met or saw or heard Father McNabb has ever forgotten him."
Hilaire Belloc, who was in many ways temperamentally similar to Father McNabb, wrote this about him after his death in the Dominican journal Blackfriars in 1943:
"The greatness of his ... character, of his learning, his experience, and, above all, his judgement, was altogether separate from the world about him... the most remarkable aspect of all was the character of holiness... I can write here from intimate personal experience ... I have known, seen and felt holiness in person... I have seen holiness at its full in the very domestic paths of my life, and the memory of that experience, which is also a vision, fills me now as I write - so fills me that there is nothing now to say."
... Monsignor Ronald Knox, who was, in many ways, Father McNabb's temperamental opposite, wrote, when asked for his opinion on the move - in the 1950s - to start a process for Father McNabb's beatification:
"Father Vincent is the only person I have ever known about whom I have felt, and said more than once, He gives you some idea of what a saint must be like. There was a kind of light about his presence which didnt seem to be quite of this world."
But perhaps my favourite tribute to him from his famous contemporaries - in one way at least - comes from the pen of Maurice Baring and through the eyes and ears and reflections of an unbeliever. To give some background: Cecil Chesterton, G K Chesterton's brother, died in 1918 from trench fever caught while serving at the Front: he had converted to Catholicism in 1913. Before joining up, he had been a pugnacious journalist who had fought against financial and political corruption in Parliament, had been successfully but wrongfully sued by the Isaac brothers for revealing their part in the Marconi Scandal, and was in Belloc's view the more able of the Chesterton brothers (a view that, I have to add, no-one else seems to have held, the humble G K Chesterton aside). Father McNabb preached at Cecil Chesterton's funeral: sadly, no copy of the sermon survived (Belloc referred to it as the greatest piece of sacred oratory he had ever heard) but Maurice Baring published a poem in the 1943 August issue of Blackfriars inspired by the comments of an unbeliever friend and poet who had accompanied Baring to the funeral:
A poet heard you preach and told me this:  
While listening to your argument unwind 
He seemed to leave the heavy world behind; 
And liberated in a bright abyss 
All burdens and all load and weight to shed; 
Uplifted like a leaf before the wind, 
Untrammelled in a region unconfined,He moved as lightly as the happy dead....

... [Vincent McNabb] was born Joseph McNabb, at Portaferry near Belfast on 8th July 1868. He was thus - I think importantly - senior to both Belloc and Chesterton, by two and six years respectively. His father was a sea captain whom he seldom saw: his mother was just that, a mother, and - in his eyes - all the more blessed for being 'just' that.... She was the mother of eleven children in total, Joseph McNabb being the tenth. In his later years he wrote a book, almost an autobiographical study of his early years, called Eleven, thank God! which he dedicated to his mother and which stands as a great apologia pro familia magna. Family always held a central place in Father McNabb's world, as it indeed holds a central place in Rerum Novarum.

Although born in Ireland, by the age of 14 he had moved with his family to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on account of his father's work. ... Curiously, what appears to have been the principal human motive behind Father McNabb's vocation was the same thing that drove Chesterton into the Catholic Church - fear of Hell. As he put it: "I dont want to go to Hell; I think I'll go to the Novitiate!" ...

As we have seen, Father NcNabb was ordained in September1891, shortly after his 23rd birthday, and in the year of Rerum Novarum. He was the most brilliant scholar of his year in the novitiate, although the following years were to see some greater academic minds entering the Order. ... 

For the next 26 years, Father McNabb was sent hither and thither as holy Obedience demanded. ... 

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... Now let us look in more detail at the work and thought of Father McNabb. ... It was not until he finally settled down at St Dominic's Priory ... at the age of 52 that he found a context for his work and contacts with those able best to assist him in his work and so - per accidentem - became a national Catholic figure. His preaching at Parliament Hill and Speakers Corner with the Catholic Evidence Guild were instrumental to this growing renown.

... I would like now to cite some quotations from his own works to throw light on what he was saying to those contemporaries.

This first piece is from the introduction to the book, Old Principles and the New Order, published in 1942, which was a collection of his essays printed in Catholic journals over the previous twenty years:
"This book rests upon certain dogmatic and moral principles, certain undeniable facts, and it makes certain practical proposals. 
The first principle is that there is a God, our Creator, Whom we must love and serve; and Whom we cannot love and serve without loving and serving our fellow creatures. 
The second principle is that the Family is the unit of all social life; and that therefore the value of all social proposals must be tested by their effect on the Family. 
The third (psychological) principle is that from the average man we cannot expect more than average virtue. A set of circumstances demanding from the average man more than average (i.e. heroic) virtue is called an Occasion of Sin. 
The fourth (moral) principle is that the occasions of sin should be changed, if they can possibly be changed, i.e. they must be overcome by flight not fight. 
The great observed fact, of world-wide incidence, is that in large industrialized urban areas (and in town-infested rural areas) normal family life is psychologically and economically impossible; because from the average parent is habitually demanded more than average virtue.... 
From this observed fact that the industrialized town is an occasion of sin we conclude that, as occasions of sin must be fled,... Flight from the Land must be now be countered by Flight to the Land."
... The occasion of sin which Father McNabb was particularly - but not exclusively - referring to was the temptation placed before poor families living in poor conditions to resort to methods of birth control ("no birth and no control" as G K Chesterton so famously put it - "race suicide" as McNabb put it rather more grimly).

While the state in which so many of his contemporaries lived and worked filled him with grief and anguish ... it was largely amongst these people that he worked, and to these people he ministered and preached. Despite his popularity, and its usefulness to his mission, he was consistent in urging his congregation, his audience, to leave him and to leave London. He encouraged all those who could to desert the Babylon of London - 'Babylondon', as he often referred to it - and vowed to remain behind to serve those who could not, or would not, leave.... [T]his flight to the Land was no foolish idea: towards the end of Father McNabb's life the Government was itself was in the face of war to encourage a return to the land, so as to increase agricultural produce from a degraded and untended land. ...

Of course, the primary reason for Father McNabb's detestation of squalid and degrading urban conditions was the effect they had upon family life. The family is the prime unit of Christian society - indeed of any society - and precedes the State in every respect. Father McNabb knew that all economic, social, and political acts ... [should be judged by their effects] upon the family.... The family was what he called "the Nazareth measure". As he wrote in his book, The Church and the Land:
"All our personal and social building, to be lasting, must be trued by the measures of that little school of seers whose names are the very music of life - Jesus, Mary, Joseph! ... [L]et no guile of social usefulness betray you into hurting the authority of the Father, the chastity of the Mother, the rights and therefore property of the Child."
... In his book, Old Principles and the New Order- a title that sounds quite prophetic to our own ears - he writes about charity, poverty, and obedience:
"[E]ven Catholics have sometimes come to think that the three virtues behind these religious vows were only for religious, whereas the three virtues are binding upon all individuals, and in some measure, upon that grouping of individuals... which we moderns...confusedly call the State.."
... Father McNabb is pointing out that these three virtues should be as much a daily call to arms as they are to the religious who have professed vows. ... Moreover, Father McNabb added:
"[I]t need hardly be pointed out that the poverty of work and thrift, the self-control of virginal and conjugal chastity, the obedience to rulers and to law, are of the greatest social value and need."
In many articles Father McNabb traced the decadent and withering effect of the State upon society to its neglect of poverty -- through reckless expenditure, financial mismanagement, usurious practices -- to its neglect of obedience -- by going against the natural moral law and the laws of revealed religion -- and to its neglect of chastity -- by permitting, even encouraging, activities that undermined sexual or conjugal morality. Just as every individual should strive to be poor, chaste, and obedient, so too the State should aim to adhere to these three cardinal virtues.

One of Father McNabbs hardest lessons to his own and to our generation concerns poverty. ... To Father McNabb poverty meant having enough for your duties of state but no more: having no excess, no extravagance, no luxury -- always giving, as Christian charity dictates, to those less fortunate what you yourself or those for whom you are responsible do not need. Certainly, what constituted "enough" in Father McNabb's eyes would be considered as much too little by most of our contemporaries and even by most of us. But he was not recommending that we all become mendicants or fall into a life of helpless wretchedness and pauperism - only that we attempt to be self-sufficient, restrict our desires, limit our needs, and give from any over-abundance we possess. 

Many Catholics throughout the ages have fallen into complacency on this point by retreating behind the wall of "spiritual poverty", by allowing themselves anything and everything on the basis that they are poor in spirit. Father McNabb of course realised the importance of spiritual poverty ... [but] he also realised the dangers of riches, the difficulty of achieving spiritual poverty when surrounded by excess - and he also realised that the demands of justice and especially of charity required people to have less than they would probably like or would naturally have. Furthermore, he saw the embrace of poverty as a means of defeating the increasing materialism and destitution of the world about him. ... 

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... Father McNabb would never claim originality or even ingenuity for any of the things about which he taught or preached. His great pride - if we are permitted to use that word in this context - was that he taught only what the Church taught: in particular that he taught almost exclusively from Holy Scripture and from the works of the Angelic Doctor. ... 

Interestingly, the very first book for which Father McNabb was responsible was an edition of the decrees of the First Vatican Council: his first printed pamphlet, entitled Infallibility, was a version of a lecture he had been asked to give to the Anglo-Catholic Society of St. Thomas of Canterbury. Father McNabb showed great interest in the possibility of the Anglican Church re-uniting with the Catholic Church.... He also took an interest in the poor Jews of Whitechapel and East London in general, and was held in great affection by the Jewish community there. ... 

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... Even amongst his fellow Dominicans, as yet untainted by modernism and its laxities, Father McNabb was considered to be an ascetic. As Prior of Woodchester, Hawkesyard and Holy Cross he had developed a reputation for being hard on others, but certainly no harder than he was on himself: and he could always lend someone a sympathetic ear, something he never seems to have had for himself! He ate sparingly - he blamed his "Protestant stomach" - and his face and body demonstrated the hard self-denial of his religious life. He slept on the floor of his cell - which floor he scrubbed daily - and his bed lay unused even through illness and his final death-pangs. He had no chair in his room until the last days of his life when - still refusing to lie on his bed - he finally consented to be seated in a chair. When writing, he knelt at a table surmounted by a crucifix and small statue of the Blessed Virgin: on the table lay his only books, a copy of the Vulgate, his Breviary, and the Summa Theologica. ... 

Everything he wrote was hand-written: he abominated most machinery and had particular a vehemence for type-writers! Hilaire Belloc, who shared many views with Father McNabb, always had a fascination for machinery and considered the type-writer - and the telephone (something else Father McNabb loathed) - as a great boon (Belloc's handwriting was notoriously slovenly: Father McNabbs was habitually neat and legible). It would no doubt have been both interesting and amusing to have been a fly-on-the-wall as they discussed the desirability of the automated writing machine!

Of course, as a religious, indeed, as a Catholic, prayer was central to his life. His profound attachment to Holy Mass and the Office aside, Father McNabb devoted much of his energy to praying and to encouraging others to pray the Holy Rosary. As a man of formidable intellect and deep learning he had nothing but impatience for those who claimed that the Rosary was a prayer, a devotion, for simple beginners, for the unlettered, for those who have not yet ascended to the sublime heights of spirituality. Such people rendered Father McNabb almost speechless with indignation. "The Rosary", he would say, "is the safest and surest way to union with God through mental prayer". ... Again and again he would say: "Most of the contemplatives I have met are in the world, and these have found union with God through the Rosary." Devotion to the Rosary, he insisted, should be fundamental to a Catholic's prayer life. As he said during a sermon on Rosary Sunday on 1936:
"The Incarnation is the centre of all our spiritual life.. One of the means by which it is made so is the Holy Rosary. There is hardly any way of arriving at some realisation of this great mystery equal to that of saying the Rosary. Nothing will impress it so much on your mind as going apart to dwell in thought, a little space each day, on Bethlehem, on Golgotha, on the Mount of the Ascension."
... Although he was not averse to rail travel, or public transport in general, he usually refused to travel by car or by cab: the long distances he had to cover in London from St Dominics Priory to the various convents to which he was chaplain, to Speakers Corner and to Parliament Hill, he managed on foot and at a startling pace. Hilaire Belloc, who astonishingly still holds the time record for walking between London and Oxford, was full of admiration for Father McNabb's speed and endurance: indeed, he gave him advice on how to follow his own route from Toul to Rome, famously walked and recounted in The Path to Rome. Father McNabb's superior would not however allow him the vacation time to accomplish this walk, which he had so wanted to do - at the age of 68 (Belloc had been 31!) - to celebrate the golden jubilee of his profession in the Dominican Order.

... I touched earlier upon Father McNabb's homespun habit. When one was worn out he received another - and the donor from 1917 onwards was the Ditchling Community, an artistic variant of the back-to-the-land movement which Father McNabb supported throughout his life. Eric Gill and Hilary Pepler had been the two talents behind its genesis in 1907. Father McNabb acted as the Community's chaplain - many of the its members became Third Order Dominicans - but nonetheless fault-lines soon appeared. Its attempts to live off the land faltered - most of its members were artists and had little aptitude for real land-work - and gradually it became an artistic rural retreat rather than a self-sufficient community with an artistic bent. Father McNabb was disappointed that the members of the Community had not applied themselves more to the primary thing - to working on the land. On this matter he did not see eye-to-eye with Eric Gill. Eventually, Gill departed for Wales in 1924. Thereafter, despite his enthusiastic advice to all who asked for it to return to the land, to strive for poverty and self-sufficiency away from the stink of the cities, Father McNabb never again attached himself to any particular project as he had to Ditchling.

Indeed, Father McNabb was always concerned with the primary things and saw any work or activity that moved even one stage away from the primary thing as less worthy and possibly less virtuous. As a result he loathed international finance which was as far removed from reality and the primary things as it was possible to go. As he put it, cuttingly:
"Some men wrest a living from nature. This is called work. Some men wrest a living from those who wrest a living from nature. This is called trade. Some men wrest a living from those who wrest a living from those who wrest a living from nature. This is called finance."

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Before I move on to describe Father McNabbs death, I feel I must offer up a few examples of his wit in order to derail any growing impression that Father McNabb must have been a miserable fanatic. Father McNabb certainly had a way with words. He was particularly adept at dealing with hecklers. On one occasion during a long disquisition on sin at Speakers Corner an Irish woman shouted out: "If I was your wife I would put poison in your tea!". Grinning, Father McNabb replied: "Madam, if I were your husband I would drink it!". On another occasion he famously compared hearing nuns' confessions to being pecked slowly to death by ducks. On a more serious note, he once attended a public meeting on the subject of the Mental Degeneracy Bill then passing through the House of Commons. After listening to various medical experts explaining how they would certify as degenerates, and as a result sterilise, many types with whom Father McNabb was familiar in his pastoral work, the good friar stood up and, having been called to speak by the chairman of the meeting, bellowed: "I am a moral expert and I certify you as moral degenerates!" He stormed out of the meeting to rapturous applause and the meeting broke up in disarray.

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If it is true that it is possible to tell a lot about a person's life from the manner of their death then it seems only appropriate that we should now turn to the last long weeks of Father McNabbs life and to his eventual death.

On 14th April 1943, as he was drawing to the end of his seventy-fifth year, Father McNabb was told by his doctor that he had only a short time to live. That same day he wrote to his niece, Sister Mary Magdalen, a Dominican sister, "Deo Gratias! God is asking me to take a journey which everyone must sooner or later take. I have been told that I have a malignant incurable growth in the throat. I can, at most, have weeks to live." ... 

It was to be approximately nine weeks before Father McNabb finally died - and these last two months were as busy a period for him as any that had gone before. ... 

When the press - Catholic and secular - found out that such a popular figure was about to die they hounded the Dominican Community at St Dominics Priory. Father McNabb was determined that his death should be as much a sermon as his life as a Dominican had been. He knew that the last weeks would be difficult. He had been told that he would effectively die slowly of starvation, and may well experience some severe breathing troubles, as the passage of his throat narrowed and finally disappeared. While his strength was still with him he continued to preach and speak across London, marching along its dreary streets in his habit and hob-nailed boots with his heavy McNabb-sack over his shoulders. He went to all his choir duties until a few days before his death: although he was able to speak to the end, and his breathing problems were slight, he was not able to eat for about a week, and could not swallow any liquids for three days, before he died. In the end, he collapsed one morning at Prime, on Monday 14th June.... The next day he received the Last Rites and slowly deteriorated until the morning of Thursday 17th June when he summoned Father Prior to his cell.... Father McNabb sang the Nunc Dimittis for the last time, confessed his sins to Father Prior, and renewed his vows. He then became unconscious for half-an-hour, sneezed, and died.

Crowds of people, young and old, rich and poor, but especially old and poor, came to see him, pray for him, and touch his habit as he was laid out in the Lady Chapel at the Priory for three days. The Requiem Mass took place on Monday 21st June: the Church was packed, principally with Catholic luminaries - the streets outside were thronged with the poor from the tenements he had so often visited. ... Truly, his last sermon, his death, was what reached his greatest audience. As his Prior, Father Bernard Delaney, said at his funeral:
"All that he [Father McNabb] said, all that he did, all that he was, were the expression of his burning love for his Master, Jesus Christ Our Lord. The cause of God was his consuming passion - the glory, the justice, the truth of God. He was a great Friar Preacher, but he was something more - he was a living sermon."
... Although some aspects of Catholic social teaching which he championed would certainly be enthusiastically cheered by elements amongst the typical May Day anti-capitalist and anti-globalization protesters, and some aspects would be limply applauded at ghastly Justice and Peace hand-holdings across the country by the polo-necked pseudo-Dominicans who sadly today often pass for St Dominic's sons, much of what Father McNabb stood for - integral, upright, unapologetic, strong, fervent Catholicism - is of course now out of favour. There can be no doubt that Father McNabb would have been desolated by what passes for Catholicism in so many churches ... today. ... 

I will conclude this piece with some more of Father McNabbs words, and with a prayer of his:
"Some people say, I do not like sermons. ... They do not realise that every deed done in the sight or hearing of another is a preached sermon. The best or the worst of all sermons is a life led. God made every man and woman an apostle when he made them capable of dwelling with their fellow men and women. The best argument for the Catholic Church is not the words spoken from this pulpit but the lives lived in this Priory and in this parish. We should measure the words by the life, not the life by the words." ... 

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