Roasted artichokes in oil; garlic-pickled mushrooms;cipolline onions in balsamic; exquisite antipasti and exotic pastas; squid in ink — I am doing well out of Lent so far, thanks largely to an after-Christmas sell-off in a local supermarket. The proprietor is an Italian immigrant of some taste, who got it into his head that if you put fine imported foods before an abused eating public at very reasonable prices in a holiday season, they will buy. He was perhaps half right: for knock another 50 percent off those prices and I will buy, along with several excited old Italian ladies clambering beside me.
I could not help but think it a metaphor of the Catholic Church today: a few excited customers foraging for little-appreciated half-price goods, in an immense field of cart-pushing sleepwalkers. But let’s not go there, for my theme today is Lent.
I did not purposely stock up for Lent, it just worked out that way. And these bottled delicacies cluttering my shelves have provided a nice transition since Ash Wednesday. Surely by Holy Week they will have run out entirely. Meanwhile, I’ve been reminded of how a people (Italian; my own ethnicity is rude Caledonian, incidentally) could survive the centuries on a diet that includes less than one-quarter of the meat the average contemporary North American engorges (though rather more fish, in compensation).
And Italy was, after all, the superpower through most of the last dozen-or-so centuries. The last, “American century” was a bit of an anomaly, like the British one before it. Nor can I find evidence the Italians, on the average, ate more red meat in centuries past; though reading some of the spreads in the Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (16th-century Roman chef to cardinals and popes), one is inclined to reopen the question. (These works were translated with commentary by the perdurable gastronomic scholar Terence Scully, in an edition I can fulsomely recommend except for its price, from the University of Toronto Press, 2008.)
There is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Life, we are taught, adheres to the spirit; though the spirit will, generally speaking, also adhere to the letter. And the letter, too, provides an education to the spirit, which is why bad laws — like most of those written in the last couple of generations in our secular political realm — are such a vexation to the spirit.
We are losing the sense that the law is good, that it is righteous in and of itself, that anyone other than a chump would obey it. This is the inevitable fallout of the kind of social engineering that has been pursued by all of our progressive parties — who use the law, and rewritings of the law, to pursue an agenda that has nothing to do with the inherited constitutional order, and more with the entropic nihilism of “universal equality”: who, in fact, use the letter of the law quite purposely to defeat the spirit of that law that upholds the moral order.
The perfect example of this is the comprehensive health-care reform legislation that U.S. politicians, including your president (I’m Canadian, don’t blame me), are trying to jam through Congress somehow. While any single passage in the immense binder of this omnibus legislation may or may not accord with law and tradition, the whole thing together cannot possibly accord. Like so much other modern legislation, it represents a systematic attempt to overthrow and replace the existing order; and thereby it contributes to throwing all order into contempt.
Or, as Robert Royal put it over at that excellent Web site The Catholic Thing: “Most Americans sense that there’s something threatening in the recent rush systematically to transform rather than incrementally improve the way we live. . . . The Founders deliberately made it hard to pass sweeping legislation under the Constitution.”
Just so. Your Founding Fathers grasped that sweeping legislation was in its nature tyrannical, and they were in their nature opposed to tyranny. They wrote a Constitution for a free people, both in letter and in spirit. And we (I include myself here, for the phenomena may be found throughout the contemporary Western world) have come upon the evil days when freely elected representatives of “the people” are doing exactly what your Founding Fathers most feared.
To eat fancy food during Lent is against the spirit of the ancient “legislation” or, more precisely, custom of the Church. Yet for all that, gracious observance of the letter tends the soul toward obedience in the spirit, and not away. By small increments we move, at least, in the right direction. The teaching function dwells in obedience to the law.
Likewise, even in hypocrisy, those who break the law, yet fear it, give at least that homage which La Rochefoucauld said vice owes to virtue. There is no intention to change the good order of things, only to make an illegitimate exception for oneself.
Lent is a time to recall the many virtues allied with restraint in the private, but perhaps also in the public, sphere. It is a time to consider the many things that we could live without. It is a time when even Catholic politicians might ask themselves if subverting the laws of God and of nature, turning the moral order upside down with fiendish and demonic “omnibus” legislation, is really such a good idea.
Or whether just eating exquisite grilled artichokes, in the finest oils, on a Friday in Lent would not be a more modest way to express their presumption.