John Senior and ‘The Sacrifice of Fools’
(I originally wrote this piece for issue 43 of the Brandsma Review)
Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools.
John Senior, who died on April 8, 1999, was a real campus radical. During the 1970s, with two other academics, he appalled the liberal establishment by setting up a hugely successful Integrated Humanities Programme in the University of Kansas. Senior, a classicist, with English specialists Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick were regarded as heretics by their colleagues because they taught that the great books of Western civilisation were of permanent value—not just culturally-conditioned artefacts. Their reading lists began with the Greek and Roman classics and went on to cover modern American literature. Although all three were Catholics, only a handful of their set books were specifically Christian.
Nevertheless, totally against the tide, their course resulted in hundreds of conversions to the Church, without any proselytism on their part. This was partly because, in Quinn’s words, the three began their courses by restoring their pupils’ faith in reason. One of these converts, Fr James Conley, explained:
What the programme did was to introduce me to goodness, truth and beauty for the very first time—through literature, music, the classic authors—and it was presented in such a way that if you had an open heart, you couldn’t help falling in love…And as I pursued this love, it led me into the Roman Catholic Church, which is where I found the fulfilment of goodness, truth and beauty.
The success of Senior, Quinn and Nelick infuriated the establishment, who hurled wild accusations of brainwashing and cult activities. Some parents of converted students complained to the university, and a local Unitarian minister formed an organisation with the bizarrely Orwellian title, “Committee for Academic and Religious Freedom”, with the aim of abolishing the course. To its shame, the Kansas archdiocese, embarrassed by the controversy, opposed the programme. Although an investigation cleared the three of any wrongdoing, the faculty assembly abolished it all the same. As for the allegations of cult activities, the three professors brought a libel suit which was settled out of court in their favour.
John Senior’s influence has extended far beyond the Kansas campus. In his books The Death of Christian Culture and The Restoration of Christian Culture he expounds his theory of Western culture—a theory anathema both to secularist multiculturalists and to those Catholics who believe in “adapting” the faith to different peoples:
Culture, as in ‘agriculture’ is the cultivation of the soil from which men grow. To determine proper methods, we must have a clear idea of the crop. ‘What is man?’ the Penny Catechism asks, and answers: ‘A creature made in the image and likeness of God, to know, love and serve Him.’ Culture, therefore, clearly has this simple end, no matter how complex or difficult the means. Our happiness consists in a perfection that is no mere endless hedonistic whoosh through space and time, but the achievement of that definite love and knowledge which is final and complete. All the paraphernalia, intellectual, moral, social, psychological and physical, has this end: Christian culture is the cultivation of saints.
So, he argued, culture in the strict sense of the word is Christian culture.; and Christianity and Christian culture are inextricably one. As for the classical culture of Greece and Rome—the soil from which Christian culture grew—that too is unique:
Christ was born in the fullness of time into a definite place. Classical culture was and is the praeparatio fidei, its philosophy and literature the Egyptian gold and silver Christendom has taken on its pilgrimage. The Church has grown in a particular way and has always brought its habits with it so that wherever it has gone it has been a European thing—stretched, adapted, but essentially a European thing.
Senior argues that the concept of being—the realness of the real—is crucial to the Faith and informs the very language of Scripture. Without it, God, Creation and the Incarnation make no sense, and morality is meaningless. Opposed to it is the devil’s doctrine which takes many forms: the denial of any reality that exists independently of our perception. ‘The devil’s name is legion and his doctrine pluralism,’ according to Senior.
But now, he says, the devil’s doctrine has become the faith of the age, proclaimed in the media, in schools, in government—even in Catholic universities. Moreover, he maintains, it is
…imposed on everyone with all the inquisitorial force of a fanatical self-righteousness which, contradicting the major articles of its own creed, such as ‘academic freedom’ and ‘freedom of religion’ or ‘separation of church and state’, definitively excludes the realist view and especially its Christian expression which has been dominant in Western civilisation since the conversion of Constantine.
The extreme expression of this denial of reality, according to Senior, is maya, the dangerous oriental falsehood that the world itself is an illusion. The whole thrust of Hinduism and Buddhism, he maintains, is to deny what Christianity radically affirms—Being—and ultimately everything that follows from it, including the self, truth and falsehood, and good and evil. Ironically,he adds, oriental thought has made inroads into Western culture partly because of the appeal of its monastic ideal, which has been repressed in our own culture.
In The Restoration of Christian Culture, Senior admits that his title is misleading, as he is ‘pessimistic but not gloomy’ about its chances in the foreseeable future:
I should rather cheer us up with the neat old truth that we are not meant to succeed in this world anyway but rather to do the job in front of us as best we can, because our hope is in the next. The twentieth is not a convenient century for Catholic triumphalism. There is no possibility in the general loss of Christian Culture that we could build a cathedral like Chartres or write a text like the Summa Theologica—or even, except for a few, understand them. St Thomas is still the Common Doctor of the Church but there aren’t many common Catholics. The whole of Christian culture, the seedbed of scholastic art and science, is depleted. We are in a dustbowl, as the Kansans used to say, and if you plant wheat, though it may sprout up, it will almost instantly wither in the drouth. There are many times in history, as in life, when the most difficult virtue of patience must be practised with a cheerful heart; we must even, as Chaucer says, ‘counterfeit cheere’, sure as we are in the knowledge that , as Milton put it, in the sonnet on his blindness, ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’.
Our task, says Senior, is primarily spiritual, and in a sublime passage he explains why it must therefore be centred on the Mass:
Whatever we do in the political and social order, the indispensable foundation is prayer, the heart of which is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the perfect prayer of Christ Himself, Priest and Victim, recreating in an unbloody manner the bloody, selfsame Sacrifice of Calvary. What is Christian culture? It is essentially the Mass. That is not my or anyone’s opinion or theory or wish but the central fact of two thousand years of history. Christendom, what secularists call Western Civilisation, is the Mass and the paraphernalia which protect and facilitate it. All architecture, art, political and social forms, economics, the way people live and feel and think, music, literature—all these things when they are right, are ways of fostering and protecting the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. To enact a sacrifice, there must be an altar; an altar has to have a roof over it in case it rains; to reserve the Blessed Sacrament, we build a little House of Gold and over it a Tower of Ivory with a bell and a garden round about it with the roses and lilies of purity, emblems of the Virgin Mary—Rosa Mystica, Turris Davidica, Turris Eburnea, Domus Aurea, who carried his Body and Blood in her womb, Body of her body, Blood of her blood. And around the church and garden, where we bury the faithful dead, the caretakers live, the priests and religious whose work is prayer, who keep the Mystery of Faith in its tabernacle of music and words in the Office of the Church; and around them, the faithful who gather to worship and divide the other work that must be done in order to make the perpetuation of the Sacrifice possible—to raise the food and make the clothes and build and keep the peace so that generations to come may live for Him, so that the Sacrifice goes on even until the consummation of the world.
Thus far, all traditional Catholics—and even many conservatives who prefer the New Mass—would agree with him. But Senior would accept nothing less than the restoration of the old Mass, describing the new rite as a disaster—even while recognising its validity. He used to attend Masses of the Society of St Pius X (for lack of anything better) even though he disagreed with some of their attitudes and always worked to unite them with other Catholic traditionalists. He explained:
I don’t feel any danger of schism or any of those things. I think the Church is in such a bad way that—well, as Michael Davies puts it, if Weakland is in, who the hell is going to say the Society is out? You don’t have to be a canon lawyer to answer questions like that. When the ship goes down, there’s a point at which the captain says, Every man for himself. You grab what you can get. So I’ve been very grateful to them for this. Sure, they have their problems—any splinter group does. When you lose the pope, you lost the principle of unity.
His very close relationship with the Society of St Pius X would make many traditional Catholics (including this editor) somewhat uneasy. But those of us who have endured the farcical celebrations imposed in so many Irish parishes will understand the frustration expressed in his poem, The Sacrifice of Fools (though we don’t yet have the cavorting girls in leotards):
Et tu, Ecclesia? O Lord
Avenge thy mutilated Word,
This slaughtered liturgy whose bones
Lie scattered on the altar stones!
The possibility of prayer
Persists upon the dentist’s chair;
Not even instruments that drill
Banish all that’s beautiful.
God is everywhere we seek,
Save this Hour every week,
When all that’s crackpot, cruel and crass
Celebrates itself at Mass—
That smiler conjuring his gods,
Cavorting girls in leotards!
O Peter raise thy two-edged sword
and send them to their just reward,
Just one terrible swift slice
To restore the Sacrifice!
Holy Father, knees are bent:
Rome is not so far from Trent.
Even in the summer slum,
Angels of the night are near,
And mothers to the rooftops come
To kiss away a childish tear.
Across the scarlet battlefield,
come to those who are afraid,
Jesus, once a little child,
Mary, mother mild and maid.
Or is it now impossible
Because “the Sacrifice shall fail”
(See Chapter Nine in Daniel)?
Senior was an early advocate of orthodox Catholic ghettos, where parents would set up genuine Catholic schools and give their children a proper upbringing protected, as far as possible, from the destructive secular culture. He said we must consecrate hearts, homes, schools and parishes to Mary—because Christian culture had been “founded in the humus of her humility assumed into Heaven, drawing us up”.
In spite of his pessimism, Senior insisted that these were wonderful times to be alive, precisely because we had nothing left to rely on but God. One of our problems was that we had “blurred the distinction between being happy and being blessed, confusing the strong and sometimes bitter Catholic wine with the juice of the Liberal Protestant grape”:
Anyone who says that Christ will make you happy hasn’t tried Him much, hasn’t even got on to the Camino Real, let alone very far along it, because the Royal Way is the Way of the Cross.
But he certainly knew the meaning of real Christian hope, as summed up in this little poem whose irony may be grasped more readily by evangelical Protestants, well steeped in the Old and New Testaments, than by many Catholics:
Praise death, that Sahara
Barren as Sarah, or Elizabeth.
Yes, if there is to be a restoration of Catholic tradition, then John Senior was its John the Baptist—a voice crying in the wilderness, making straight the way of the Lord. After his funeral his son Andrew pointed out that thousands of people had been praying over the past year for John’s recovery:
I firmly believe that no prayer goes unanswered; when it seems so, as now, God has even greater blessings in store. I believe that all those prayers will be answered, in ways we haven’t even imagined. If I could have one wish as to how, it would be what he himself laboured and prayed for, what Our Lord Himself prayed for—ut unum sint…If all traditionalists were united, Rome would be inundated, and the tide might begin to turn in earnest.
Much of the material in this article is based on a piece on John Senior by Jeffrey Rubin in the July-August 1993 issue.of Latin Mass magazine, 1331 Red Cedar Circle, Ft. Collins, CO 80524, USA.