We didn’t dance.
It was an ironclad rule of the schools and religious communities of my youth that dancing was forbidden, a prohibition enforced with the same rigor as the edict to not “drink, smoke, or chew. Or go with girls who do.”
Consequently, I first danced during my graduate school days at Boston College, although enthusiasm far outstripped skill, I’m sure, and my friends’ suppression of laughter was a kindness. Dancing became such a part of our companionship—along with study and billiards—that I overcame family hesitations and there was a dance floor at my wedding. I first danced with my mother then. A beautiful thing, that, even if somewhat ungainly.
With age and children, dancing at the local college bar has lost some of its luster, I’ll admit, and my musical tastes have developed considerably. While the kitchen sees its fair share of box steps, I rarely dance in public anymore.
Recently, however, my wife and some friends threw a party culminating in traditional line dancing. I’d not done that before, and went to the party somewhat hesitant. But there we all were, about sixty of us, jammed together in an overheated room, stomping and clapping, bowing and twirling to the fiddle and guitar.
Mostly, though, we were exulting. I held my youngest daughter—to her shrieking delight—as her beaming older sister and I do-si-doed and promenaded, movements sometimes made awkward by the toddler bouncing in my arms. Another daughter happily paired with a friend while a triumphant son somehow convinced an older (and pretty) partner to stoop for him. My wife danced with one of her students, and he was just young enough to seem entirely unselfconscious about it. Unlike other days, teenaged boys could not escape their mother’s arms—and I saw moms so jubilant and merry and relieved at this feat that they were paraphrasing Simeon: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace.” Grandfathers and granddaughters, husbands and wives, friends; a few yearning adolescents with hearts beating time to another, more ancient reel.
In that sweltering, overcrowded room, you could hear the music and see us leaping, joined in circles, feet rising and falling in mirth, the association of man and woman, holding each other by the hand or arm. We were—I was—drunk with it. Flushed of body and soul, delighted with the others, thrilled with reality; we were not, as I feared, ironical or skeptical but approving. We approved, in the old sense of the term, in that we recognized goodness—probus—and loved it, willed that it should be, should exist, should continue. In the handing off of one partner to the next, we handed on—traditio—the rhythms of the good reality that preceded us, following the patterns long set down by others. And it was good.
Later that evening, back in my own living room, although long past bedtime, my children kept dancing, insistent that I should join their youthful joy. It was, I thought several times, so normal. Compared to the wastelands of our culture, we were surrendered to norms revealing the way things ought to be, unveiling the goodness deep down in things, and reminding us that a universe created by the God of communion is abundant.
By happy coincidence I had just finished Anthony Esolen’s admirable new book, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching. In exploring the writings of Pope Leo XIII to articulate Catholic principles of marriage, family, and the state, Esolen presents a profound and winsome picture of a genuinely flourishing life; a humanism beautiful because thoroughly Christian.
It’s been heavy on my mind that while the Gospel exudes a “deep amazement at man’s worth and dignity” our cultured despisers have painted us as dour killjoys. Since its beginning, the Faith has defended humans, for since God in Christ has become one of us, we are, each of us, of inestimable worth. The early church defended the status of women, cared for the poor, refused the exposure of infants, and restrained the powerful while empowering the weak; the monastics offered shelter and hospitality to others as if the guest were Jesus himself, and in time schooling and employment; the guilds taught a trade, protected fair wages, and provided for widows and orphans; religious orders created hospitals, schools, orphanages, ransomed captives, and visited the imprisoned. The Faith compels us to be for persons, for their dignity and worth, for their salvation and well-being.
How did Belloc put it?
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
We are the people of Merrie England, the people who created a wealth of art and music and architecture and cities in order to adorn and shelter the Mass. The people devoted to hope, commanded to avoid despair; a people for whom nihilism is impossible because all things, visible and invisible, were created and declared good. A people who, following St Augustine, insist that evil cannot be a real thing because all real things are probus and worth approving.
Yet, we are so endlessly portrayed as against. Against emancipation and experimentation, against choice, against science, against technological prowess, against equality—ultimately against freedom and human accomplishment. In a diabolical reversal, our amazement and approval of the world is recast as an antihumanism, a brake on human progress and happiness.
Of course, as Esolen explains so well, the contemporary vision of happiness “refuses to respect the nature” of things, and in the name of a misguided freedom builds “a wreck, a monstrosity”
… materialist in all its assumptions about a good life, bureaucratically organized, unanswerable to the people, undermining families, rewarding lust and sloth and envy, acknowledging no virtue, providing no personal care, punishing women who take care of their children at home, whisking the same children into vice-ridden schools designed to separate them from their parents’ view of the world, and, for all that … mired in dysfunction, moral squalor, and poverty.…
We know that the culture of our despisers is a paltry thing, limping and gelded, even though arrogantly asserting a superiority it cannot defend or maintain or even populate.
Leo XIII traces a far richer way for human dignity, liberty, marriage, the family, social life, the Church, work, and the state. This way values the person and their home, cherishes the loveliness of marriage and children, maintains property as a sign of hope for generations yet unborn, nourishes and cares for the week, orders acquisitiveness, and provides beauty. In short, loves and approves of everything fair and noble. And Catholic order must be beautiful because it is centered upon and deriving from the Eucharist and the splendor of Christ.
In the final pages of Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Esolen turns from analysis to an imaginative description of what a Catholic order might look like. It’s a lovely image, full of humanity and life. Schools, homes, clubs, theatres, benevolent societies, civic groups, parks, and children everywhere. Also, because this is a vision of the good, dance:
So there are dances, dances all the time, and song. And little children learn to dance, with the old people taking part or watching, the lads and lasses in the bloom of youth, flushed with happiness, or wistful longing, or the pangs or love, or sheer innocent mirth.
The culture of death claims to be true life. It is not. The children of God, possessing the very breath of God as our own, are caught up into life abundant. But we need to show this, to teach it, to incarnate it, to light up the pathways of the world with this life. Does anything do this more evidently than a dance?
For years I sat paralyzed at the edge of the Tiber, never quite able to muster the will to swim to Rome. Three things gave me courage at the end. First, a painting depicting the unity of all truth coming from God through theology to all the other studies. Second, a talk on the Catholic understanding of friendship with Christ. Third, pictures on our parish website of the wonderful Mercedarian community dancing at a parish party, each in scapular and capuche, and each approving of the normality of Catholic order.
I saw them dance, and was taught that life resided here. Many others are looking for life—both those inside and outside the Church—and perhaps it’s time to show them. For what do we wait?
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Wedding Dance” was painted by Pieter Brueghel the elder in 1566.