Editor’s Note: In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we present you with the first chapter of The Gentle Traditionalist by Roger Buck.
GPL. Those are my initials. You’ll hear my full name later. But let’s start with those. GT—the Gentle Traditionalist—would like it that way, I think. You’ll hear his real name soon too. This book isn’t mine, you see. It’s GT’s. Without him—and what he did for me—I could never have written it.
I call it a book. But, really, I’m not sure it is a book. Not in the ordinary sense, anyway. I’ll be frank with you: I’m not much of a writer. These are just some notes. Hopefully, they give you the minimum you need to make sense of my story.
That story starts in Ireland, Monaghan in the north to be precise—although I come from Winchester in England, went to Cambridge University, and work in London. I’m twenty-nine years old and I’d never been to Ireland before.
Now, it wasn’t that I was especially interested in Ireland. It was SHE. She loved Ireland. And I couldn’t help myself. I loved her. I always loved her. I know it sounds corny—but honestly, I think I loved her from the moment we met. It will sound even more corny when I tell you we met on Valentine’s Day. I met my true love on Valentine’s Day. And, later, I lost her on Valentine’s Day. Cue the sad sound of violins. But I can’t help it. Corny or not, it’s true. And, as you’ll see, it’s important to my story.
Anna O’Neill is her name. With a name like that, you might think Anna was Irish. But she was English—only her father came from Ireland. She’d grown up in Liverpool, but was working as a stenographer in Cambridge when I met her. Later, we lived together in London. She always drove me crazy. In more ways than one.
Our relationship finished when Anna said she needed a year to “find herself.” She’d had an inheritance which allowed her to quit the stenography. She then took off for some New Age community in Scotland where they talk to giant cabbages or something. But she didn’t come back, as she’d promised. She went to Auroville in India, then Ojai and Esalen in California. It went on: two years, then three, four, five. She was having adventures all over the world. Or misadventures. She wrote me emails about burning her feet on hot coals while fire-walking in Hawaii. And she got hypothermia with Yogi Star Bear—a Native American shaman—during a “Vision-quest” in Yellowstone National Park.
I also found some time to travel. I went to Africa. What I saw appalled me. It literally gave me nightmares. Maybe I should tell you upfront: I’m pretty left-wing. To me, it’s transparently obvious global capitalism has a great deal to answer for. And, after Africa, I meant to do something practical about it. By contrast, I couldn’t help but judge Anna as completely impractical, frivolous even.
Neither of us started any new relationships in this time. I trust Anna implicitly in that. In her emails, she always said she still loved me, but that I shouldn’t wait for her. We were just too incompatible. Our Mercuries were inconjunct. And mine was retrograde at birth. We were soul-mates, she said, but doomed by the stars.
One thing was certain: I never knew how to handle this New Age side to Anna. I always hoped she’d get over it. How could she believe all this stuff about star signs and cabbages? Not to mention karma, angels, and holistic frog-licking. Okay—I lied about the last. Still, it tells you something about my sheer frustration with this nutty side of her.
She even changed her name to Lotus Flower for a few years. But finally, she returned to stay with a friend in London for a whole summer. She was different. She seemed less crazy, more ordinary, somehow. And her name was back to Anna again. I felt relieved. Maybe all the New Age nonsense was over now.
But then she dropped the bombshell.
We could never be together, she told me. She had decided to take a vow of celibacy—be a nun. My jaw fell open. “A Buddhist nun?” I asked.
No, she said, Catholic—as in Roman Catholic. I couldn’t believe my ears. Never in a billion years could I imagine Anna being Roman Catholic, let alone a Catholic nun!
Moreover, she wouldn’t be like one of these modern nuns who wear ordinary clothes. She was going full-blast traditional. She’d found this convent of nuns in France called Les Religieuses Victimes du Sacré Coeur—the Religious Victims of the Sacred Heart. What a name! They were into the Mass in Latin and they were strict.
She would wear a habit, a veil, the whole bit. Anna was stun- ning—talk about a waste. But it was more than that, of course. I was gutted—beyond gutted. Gutted squared. Up to now, I really thought Anna and I would make it someday.
Now, she seemed further away than ever. Even if she weren’t becoming a nun, much more separated us than when she was simply a New Ager. Before, we were both left-wing and we shared the same basic liberal convictions. When Anna was a New Ager, at least, she didn’t think masturbation was a sin or that some people went to Hell. We both supported abortion, gay issues—stuff like that.
We were socially inclusive—and if one thing united my own secular perspectives with her New Ageism, we both agreed organised religion was pretty old-fashioned, even stupid and bigoted.
Now, Anna had suddenly developed this rigid intolerance. I really could not understand it. Yet I loved her and somehow she looked more beautiful than ever. She had this new poise and developed this enigmatic smile. It was like the Mona Lisa, I thought. But Anna was far more beautiful than the Mona Lisa! And despite her newfound rigidity, Anna actually seemed less angry than in the past. Back then, she had quite a temper. She didn’t suffer fools gladly and could explode at the drop of a hat.
It was weird: Now she was gentler, softer—more tolerant and intolerant at one and the same time. We still had fights, though. But Anna always apologised first—even when it was clearly my fault. Later, she went to confess it to her priest.
Finally, at the end of that summer, she left for Marseilles in France. I went to the airport with her. It was the worst day of my life. I thought she was gone forever. I didn’t hear much from her after that. She was a novice—a trial nun before making vows. Still, I guess she meant to break all her worldly ties.
Then, one day at the start of February, everything changed again. I heard she wasn’t in France, but staying in a big, old farmhouse outside Monaghan in Ireland. I was elated! Had she dropped the Catholic thing now, just like the New Age stuff?
No, she told me on the phone. She was still Catholic. But she wasn’t sure God was calling her to be a nun. She told me the farmhouse was big and cold and empty apart from her. I told her I had two weeks’ leave coming. Next day, I caught a plane to Dublin and drove up to Monaghan.
It was like old times, living under the same roof again. Except, of course, it was purely platonic. This gorgeous woman I loved. So near and yet so far. Unbearably frustrating. Still, we talked. We talked like never before.
Of course, we talked about her Catholicism. I tried to understand all her rigid rules. Or maybe I didn’t try hard enough. Maybe I was too upset, I just wanted to protest. In any event, Anna would clam up, rather than give me rational explanations why she believed the crazy things she did. It was always “the Church teaches this.” Or “the Church declared that”—back in the year 381 or something. It made me mad. How relevant was that today? And couldn’t she think for herself ?
Occasionally, though, she did give reasons I could understand. We were talking about Church teaching on Hell. I said it sounded pretty dour, dire, awful. She said people were already in Hell everywhere in this world, drug pushers, killers, warmongerers—why should Hell stop when you kicked the bucket?
“Take Hitler,” she said. “If you were responsible for killing six million Jews, five million Poles and millions more soldiers and civilians, would you expect eternal happiness, after you died?”
“No, but Christianity also talks about Hell being eternal,” I objected. “A million times a million years is only the first nanosecond of your infinite torment. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody —not even Hitler. I can’t believe in a God who is less merciful than I am.”
“Hell is a mystery, a terrible mystery,” she replied. “Apparently, St. John Paul II once said we cannot know for certain who will be in Hell at the end of time or indeed whether anyone will be in Hell. On the other hand: ‘better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.’”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s Milton. Satan in Paradise Lost. Perhaps a soul like Hitler’s prefers eternal Hell to Heaven. Like I said, Hell is a mystery, unfathomable, terrible…” Her voice trailed off. Then she added, “We can’t know what Heaven or Hell are really like. Not in this life. But, if you believe in an afterlife, it doesn’t make sense to just suppose everyone will automatically be happy, when most people in this world are not happy.”
Somehow, I could buy this. This was why Catholics talked about Purgatory and Hell. Obviously, we live on a planet of incredible suffering everywhere. Why should the next world—if there was a next world—be automatically different? At any rate, I was never against the idea of an afterlife. Indeed, I believed there must be something afterwards. Life couldn’t be that pointless. I just couldn’t see strumming a harp for eternity. Or being slowly roasted over a spit by the devil either. But if Hitler’s soul was still around somewhere, I couldn’t imagine he’d found eternal bliss.
No—as GT was to show me—Anna and I did share some basic beliefs. But I hardly realised this at the time. Still, I should be clear about this: I wasn’t an atheist or even an agnostic. I knew there had to be something out there. It just didn’t look like a bearded, old man in the clouds who turned himself into a baby to save me. I also didn’t think the Catholic Church had some sort of monopoly on the truth. And I found Anna’s attitudes towards the Church completely contradictory. For one thing, she’d gone all the way to a Latin Mass convent in Marseilles, because she couldn’t bear the new liturgy. But now in Monaghan she went to an English Mass—every single day.
“There’s no Latin Mass for miles around,” she “explained.”
“Then why go to an English Mass, if you don’t like it?”
“The Mass is the Mass is the Mass,” she said, “but you won’t understand that, unless you know what the Mass is. Christ is still present there—whether you like the liturgy or not.”
“You mean as something to eat?” I scoffed.
“I told you, you wouldn’t understand.”
I didn’t. Nor could I understand why she wanted to go to a Mass in a dead language. From what I understood, the Catholic Church had changed the Mass when it liberalised itself in the 1960s. This liberalisation looked like a good thing to me. But Anna thought the changes in the Church were slowly killing it.
Since the ’60s, she told me, there’d been massive declines in vocations—as well as Catholic baptisms, marriages, etc. People were abandoning the Church in droves. She was particularly worried that very few people bothered with Confession anymore.
The new liturgy, according to her, was a major part of the problem. Apparently, a “mystic life-force” was being drained from the Church. Anna might be a Catholic now, but she still sounded like a nutty New Ager to me.
Another point of tension between us was Ireland. She was thinking of settling down in Ireland—even though the country had little in the way of the Latin Mass. Actually, Anna always had this thing about Ireland. So this wasn’t entirely new.
Like I said, her father was Irish; he came from County Cork. And, as a kid, Anna went on holiday to her old grandmother in Cork. That grandmother had been very special to her and her times in Cork were magical—a respite from an unhappy childhood in Liverpool.
But now her old love of Ireland was mixed-up with her Catholicism—and a newfound Irish nationalism that, frankly, troubled me. She reeled out this version of history whereby Catholic Ireland had long been oppressed by Protestant England. It was hard for me to take. Even if the British had been terrible at times, what was the point in stirring up these ancient hatreds? Staying near Monaghan, we were only a few miles from the border with Northern Ireland.
Whilst Anna deplored the terror inflicted by the Provisional IRA, she considered that border a tragic thing—a horrendous gash across the country. Both North and South desperately needed the other, she said. Cut off from each other, Ireland, according to her, could not fulfil her “spiritual calling.” Whatever that meant. I just didn’t get it. At any rate, Anna might be half-Irish on her father’s side, but, basically, she was English. She’d grown up there, like I did. Indeed, she’d always loved England. As did I. Her newfound criticisms of England grated on my nerves.
Annoyingly, she also put down modern Ireland. Ireland, Anna said, had become too much like secular England or America. As recently as 1970, she told me, ninety per cent of the people still went to Mass every Sunday. It had dropped to something like a quarter in less than fifty years.
For Anna, this was a tragedy. Also, since 1970, murder in Ireland had increased sixfold and suicide had grown by four times*. Obviously, Anna linked the loss of faith to social unrest, even murder, in modern Ireland.
The nation had lost what made it special, she claimed—the Catholic Church. Apparently, it was all some Anglo-American plot to turn the country into part of the capitalist West.
Weirdly, it was just the same with her old New Age stuff. Now, she really objected to holistic spirituality, calling it “pagan.” It wasn’t really holistic, she said. It wasn’t inclusive, but exclusive. Subtly, it worked to eliminate Christ and the Cross from Western Civilisation. Much of it, she said, came from the East. But it was popularised by Anglo-American gimmicks. And now Ireland was falling for those same gimmicks.
Listening to her, it all seemed like one gigantic conspiracy against the Catholic Church in Ireland. England. America. Freemasons. President Obama. Margaret Sanger. Gloria Steinem. Hollywood. The Rolling Stones. The CIA. Helena Blavatsky. The Dalai Lama. Yogi Bear. God knows what else—maybe the Loch Ness monster, for all I knew. They were all in it together to subvert Christ’s Church on earth. Arrgh. How could she take this crazy, paranoid stuff seriously?
Still, Ireland was starting to get to me, too. In a good way. The Monaghan people were friendly—sometimes astonishingly so. We broke down in Anna’s old car one day. It was pouring with rain.
I couldn’t believe how many people stopped and helped us out. We got drenched and while one old man worked on the engine, another couple invited us back to their home to dry ourselves off and have tea. The Irish people were like that, Anna said. Ireland possessed a strange magic, I had to admit.
And maybe that Irish magic was now working on us. Because, although we fought, we also laughed a lot. In fact, I’ve told you the worst stuff. Because, you’ll see, it’s necessary to this story. But, honestly, for the most part, we were actually having a really good time during those two weeks.
So good, in fact, I started to think crazy things.
Or maybe they weren’t so crazy. I could see Anna still loved me. God knew—if there was a God—I still loved her. Clearly, she was giving up the convent idea, if she wanted to live in Ireland. There was no Latin Mass convent in Ireland and no way would Anna join a modern convent.
What if I were willing to find a job in Ireland? Would Anna marry me? She could have her Catholic life here. I could have my secular life, now that Ireland wasn’t so Catholic anymore. Heck, I’d even marry her in the Church, if that’s what she wanted.
I see now I was deluding myself. But “love is blind,” as the old cliché goes. The two weeks were nearly up. Tomorrow would be our “anniversary”: Valentine’s Day. I decided to go for broke: propose to Anna. The night before was actually very special. We were completely connected, just like in the old days. Anna even held my hand while we sat before a big, log fire in the farmhouse. She still loved me, I knew it. How could she say no?
* This figure will likely strike many as extraordinary. It did to me! What helps to ‘explain it’ is the extraordinarily low level of violent crime and suicide in Catholic Ireland before 1970. See Desmond Fennell ‘Why the Steep Rise in Suicides’ Third Stroke Did It, pg 141-145.
Copyright 2015 Angelico Press.