Paradise Lost and Found - Remembering the English Martyrs

Torch of The Faith News on Thursday 04 May 2017 - 19:30:30 | by admin

The 4th May is celebrated by the Catholic dioceses of England and Wales as a local commemoration of the English Martyrs. This date is chosen because it was on this day in 1535 that the first Catholic martyrs were taken to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn gallows, for refusing to go along with King Henry VIII's adultery and his illicit claims to be the ''only Supreme Head of the Church of England''.

May God give us the grace never to forget the holiness of their sacrifice.

What the more disoriented of today's ''ecumenists'' prefer to overlook, is the fact that the widescale rejection of Christ and Christianity in the present day is really only the natural outcome of the runaway train of events that was set in motion by the revolution which is popularly spoken of as the Protestant Reformation.

It is sad to note, but their seeming inability or lack of will to engage with this reality can only lead to further religious and cultural disintegration; and more importantly, the possible loss of countless souls.

In earlier articles, we have highlighted this problem in terms of the self-destructive trajectory that was initiated in the 16th Century, when on a sufficiently wide scale, individuals came to see themselves as their own unique interpreters of divine revelation; their own infallible popes, if you will.

Though the motion was undoubtedly complex, with philosophical roots traceable even as far back as the debates surrounding Ockham's Razor in the 14th Century, it is nevertheless possible to discern that the sparks which issued from the Protestant revolt ignited, or at the very least gave fuel to, a series of ongoing historical conflagrations, down to our own time.

Once Catholic Christendom had been ruptured by Luther and those similarly disruptive characters who followed in his wake, the world was shaken by a series of revolutionary convulsions. Among these we could include: the so-called Wars of Religion, the most bleakly positivist aspects of the Enlightenment; the more dehumanizing elements of the Industrial Revolution; the rising surge of Modernism; the dramatically efficient, yet coldly indiscriminate, mass-mechanized slaughter of the two World Wars; the nihilistic descent into irrational Post-modernism; and now the casual slouch into a ''post-truth'' paradigm, wherein pressure-groups and individuals seek to overturn received natures and realities with whatever they choose to ''identify'' themselves as, or else desire themselves to be.

As we've noted previously, the collapse into radical individualism often has the unexpected result of collective tyranny. When rampant selfishness is permitted to demolish family, faith and tradition, the newly isolated set of individuals become increasingly vulnerable to the whims of whoever is able to seize power. This is particularly problematic when divine and natural law are similarly discarded in favour of a ''might makes right'' situation. Like an illusory mirage in a dry desert, the ''new freedoms'' thus turn out to be nothing more than the suffocating prisons of licentiousness.

All of this we have discussed before.

What I wish to do in the remainder of this article, is to briefly explore the collapse into post-modernity from an angle that is different, though not unrelated to that already described.

I refer to the present religio-cultural decay in terms of a widespread rebellion against, what is really, a false conception of Christianity to begin with.

Although Queen Elizabeth I's desired Via Media - that false notion of a supposed ''Middle Way'' - eventually held sway as the religion of the Establishment, and many harshly persecuted Puritans escaped and made their way to the New World, it is also the case that the dark shadow of Calvinism fell and spread its chilling shadow into many corners, as the post-Reformation centuries progressed.

Once Catholic Christendom had been tortured, suppressed and gradually banished from the British mainstream, and in a distinct though connected revolution from large swathes of northern Europe to boot, the Christian joy, which so naturally flowed from Christ's revealed religion, was gradually distorted and disfigured by the Puritanical strictures of the Calvinists and those who imbibed elements of their narrow-minded - we might almost say narrow-hearted - creed.

I would suggest that their grimly depressing conception of the ''Absolute Depravity of Man'' has contributed massive damage in the spheres of religion, culture, social interaction, empire building, international relations, and the well-being of both communities and individuals.

Perhaps we could put this more simply as follows: Many of the citizens of post-modernity view Christianity as that miserific phenomenon which spoiled all their fun for them! In even more simple terms, they are still angry with the Church for the fact that the swings used to get chained up in their local park on the day of the Sabbath rest...

And yet this was never the Catholic way to begin with. These things were really hang-overs from Protestantism. 

In the memorable words of Hilaire Belloc: ''Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there is sure to be laughter and good red wine; at least I've always found it so, Benedicamus Domino!''

Devoid of truly Catholic joy, many of our contemporaries are searching for this joy in all the wrong places: mainly in sin and an immature and grossly narcissistic selfishness.

It would thus seem that one of the tasks facing the Catholic Church today is to enable the people of our time to again see that what many of them are rebelling against is not actually Catholicism; but rather the restrictive influences of the Puritanical Protestantism, which did so much to disfigure the Gospel of Christ in the centuries immediately prior to the present era.

Post-moderns firmly reject that which they perceive to be a curtailment of their freedom; although post-moderns don't yet know it, authentic Catholicism goes even further than that, by rejecting anything which obstructs the freedom to live in the Truth.

It was this commitment to live in and for the Truth that led the English Catholic Martyrs to die for Christ, for the Holy Mass and for the rights of the Church.

When the Protestant authorities executed these heroes of the Faith, they really hacked off the branch that connected them to real Christianity and all the genuine and life-giving joy which so naturally flowed from that.

Although it is possible to overstate the case, there is plenty of artistic, architectural, musical and documentary evidence to prove that there really had been a ''Merry Olde Catholic England'' before the Protestant revolt. But were the British ever as ''merry'' again after it?

In 1929, G.K Chesterton set out an interesting discussion that touches on these matters in his excellent book, The Thing.
In an essay entitled, If They Had Believed, he explores the tantalizing question of what difference it would have made had the great masters of English Literature been Catholics in a Catholic culture.

It is Chesterton's contention in that essay, that it is difficult to find anything whatsoever in the canon of the classical works of English literature, which could be described as a purely literary inspiration that came from the purely Protestant doctrine.

Whatever is Christian in those works, Chesterton sees as being in harmony with, and thus really a fruit of, the earlier Catholic Tradition.

And so, Chesterton reflects: ''Poor Cowper's Calvinism drove him mad; and only his poetry managed for some time to keep him sane. But there was nothing whatever either in the poetry or the sanity that could have prevented him being a Catholic.''

Later on, Chesterton reflects, that there were ''elements even in Burns and Byron, there were still more in Shelley and Swinburne, which would doubtless have been at issue with the Catholic tradition, if they had had it. But it would not have been a revolt against Catholicism half so much as it was a revolt against Protestantism.''

In a moment of delightfully classical Chestertonian wit, he reflects on the Romantics: ''It is true that Byron or Hugo probably preferred an abbey to be a ruined abbey; but they would not have visited a Baptist chapel even for the pleasure of seeing it ruined. It is true that Scott advised us to see the medieval Melrose abbey by moonlight; with the delicate implication that the medieval religion was moonshine. But he would not in any case have wanted to see Exeter Hall by gaslight; and he would have thought its theology not moonshine but gas.''
When it comes to Milton, Chesterton suggests that his epic Paradise Lost is an immortal poem; but that it had just missed out on becoming an immortal religious poem.

This is because, he points out, having lost the traditional religion of medieval Christendom, Milton's work had to look not to angels and archangels in its depiction of the War in Heaven, but to the fanciful Greek myths regarding giants and gods.

There is another essay of Chesterton's in The Thing which really brings this point home. In his reflection On the Two Allegories, Chesterton explores the different approaches taken by the Catholic Dante and the Protestant Bunyan in their epic portrayals of the journey of the soul to God.

Whilst Chesterton demonstrates a deep sympathy for all that is good in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, his essay makes an observation so profound that it still resonates with me over seven years after I first read it.

Chesterton writes: ''In the matter of chronological order, it is true that the pilgrimage of Dante and that of Bunyan both end in the Celestial City. But it is in a very different sense that the pilgrimage of Bunyan begins in the City of Destruction. The mind of Dante, like that of his master St. Thomas, really begins as well as ends in the City of Creation. It begins as well as ends in the burning focus in which all things began. He sees his series from the right end, though he then begins it at the wrong end... It is typical of the two methods, each of them very real in its way, that Dante could write a whole volume, one third of his gigantic epic, describing the things of Heaven, whereas in the case of Bunyan, as the gates of Heaven open, the book itself closes.''

Having grown up in a Protestant milieu, I can greatly appreciate the differences in world-views which Chesterton outlines in that piece. Although Protestantism has itself largely declined into a kind of post-Protestant secularism, I recall a culture which held to the absolute depravity of man and saw things in creation in a too-negative light. Real Protestantism is much more sincere, and certainly much more Christian, than what passes in many places for Protestantism today. However, it is also much more bleak in its outlook. Of course, the true answer is not a return to Protestant ''tradition'' but to the fertile Catholic Faith of Our Fathers, which was so harshly banished from these isles at the ''Reformation''.  

On our 2nd Wedding Anniversary in 2004, we spent the night in the guest accommodation at the convent of the Tyburn Nuns in London. We were in the City to visit the US Embassy to apply for our US Study Visas for Steubenville.

Before leaving the convent on the second morning, one of the sisters took us on a guided tour of the museum of the English Martyrs.
The museum contains the incredible Tyburn Martyrs Altar, complete with its overarching replica of the Tyburn Gallows.

I always remember the good nun telling us that the reason the English Martyrs have so much to teach us is that they loved Jesus, and the One, True, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith, so much that they were also able to love their enemies. They died like Christ, loving and prayerfully interceding for those who were so cruelly murdering them.

Who can forget St. Thomas More's words when, on the 4th May, 1535, he saw from the Tower of London, those first martyrs being dragged on hurdles to be executed? He proclaimed to his daughter Meg that they were going cheerfully to their deaths like bridegrooms to their marriage!

Who, either, can forget the glorious words of the great Carthusian priest St. John Houghton, who died on this very day in 1535? When his heart was torn from his chest, he asked: ''Good Jesu, what wilt Thou do with my heart?''
Were not these the true English Romantics? Were they not the men who had inhabited the joyous Merry England at the peak of its civilization and religio-cultural identity?

I've said before that I think St. John Houghton must have been interceding for my family.

After all, my parents and I were converted from commited Protestantism and received into the Catholic Church at a parish called English Martyrs. Among the names of the English Martyrs inscribed on the walls of that fine church's interior was that of St. John Houghton. It amazes me, given that our surname is Houghton and my middle name is John. I also have a good nephew called John Houghton.

The English Martyrs bore witness to the Catholic Faith to the point of dying brutal and unjust deaths for it. And yet, they loved their oppressors right to the very end. So much so that some who witnessed their brutal executions were converted and went on to become Catholic heroes themselves. As the nun at Tyburn said to us, this is why these saints can still teach us so much to this day.

Although their deaths undoubtedly marked the end of Merry Olde Catholic England, the English Martyrs also remind us that the loss of the earthly ''paradise'' allowed them their entry into the Eternal Paradise of Heaven.

We've all lost so much with the loss of Catholic Christendom, and the ongoing declines that this rupture has set in motion. On the other hand, the Martyrs also remind us that, as St, Augustine of Hippo taught, we have down here no lasting city.

Wherever we live, may the witness of the English Martyrs encourage us to Keep the Faith and, whilst we must do all we can to restore Catholic civilization, to nevertheless build up our ultimate treasure in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust can take it away (Matthew 6:19-21).

Holy Martyrs of England and Wales - Pray for us!