Sweetness Needs Light

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June 8, 2018
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June 8, 2018

By David Warren, The Catholic Thing, June 8, 2018

David WarrenHoney is a good thing, in its place. Ask any bee. He might disagree with the use of it in my morning coffee, but not in principle. It exists to be used, like everything I have seen and thought about. It might also be abused.

If one has ever drowned in a vat of honey – and frankly, gentle reader, I never have – one might glimpse its dark side. The closest I’ve come is in eating Greek baklava, or Bengali jalebi. I was crazy about them when I was young. Truth to tell, baklava is often made with sugar syrup, and jalebi almost always is. A self-styled honey expert (not a beekeeper) tells me that what comes in cheap jars labeled “honey” may be sugar syrup, too.

The distinction is important, but not for my argument. One might label pure honey as mere “syrup,” after all, though its distinctive flavor might still give it away. God makes bees; bees make honey; and humans can’t outdo them. Aphids can’t outdo them either, in their “honeydew” production, according to most human tasters. There is no equality among viscous sweeteners.

There is no equality among poets, either; or among dramatists or narrators or homilists. When Homer speaks of “honeyed words,” or of the rosy-fingered dawn for that matter – of owl-eyed Athena, or the black cloud of death – he utters metaphors. These may have become clichés to us, and to have lost their power to alarm and delight, but only through glib repetition. (Our Shakespeare has suffered the same downsizing.)

But the sweetness in Homer is of many varied kinds, used many ways in summoning before us a world that can be simultaneously mythic, and hard-baked real. That is what poets and orators are paid to do, not fill us up with corn syrup.

To this moment, I have not heard the full homily that was delivered within a certain Royal Wedding at Windsor Fairy Castle in England, recently. I gagged a few minutes in, and had to drink black coffee. Later I read through the official transcript, which I understand omitted a few riffs, on topics like slavery. A theological reference to Teilhard de Chardin and sundry progressive catch-lines were duly noted but only mildly resented. I did not expect the preacher to dwell on the Cross.

Even the bittersweet became milk chocolate, with the term “love” poured in as that “Balm in Gilead,” only in tanker trucks. It was a homily for our corn-syrup times, and it went over well with the sentimental masses.

It was also well attuned to the Hollywood stars, in such plentiful attendance – largely displacing the Royals themselves, at their own family function. What a fashion parade of the posturing great and good! And what a caress to them in the association. Bishop Michael Curry was in their element with his flashy stage rhetoric.

From a newspaper report, I noted some passing tweet by a former Labor Party leader, to the effect that the homily could almost make him a Christian. The word “almost” is a deep scoop; it can carry a lot of dripping syrup away. There are, to be sure, many millions of post-Christians – hundreds of millions still living, I suppose – whose sugary nostalgia can still be excited. A real Christian homily would drive them all away.

“You can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar,” I have been too often told. And this might sometimes be true, if one’s ambition is to kill flies. The statement is dead wrong, however, if it is fruit flies that you are trying to exterminate, as I have confirmed by empirical test. It’s the rotting fruit smell in vinegar that lures them. In fact, if we want to get technical on this, a good old-fashioned flytrap used both. The vinegar was to attract, and the honey lining to trap the little creatures in sticky goo when they alighted on it.

But returning to the realm of metaphor, wherein questions of fact are not sovereign, let me allow that a grandiloquent display of sweetness will make a good impression on the pagans. By comparison, a display of holiness may not; it is more likely to vex them. This is because our idea of holiness does not correspond to their idea of a good time. Those flies with an ability to think a bit ahead will notice all the martyrdom in it.

Ed Miliband (the tweeter cited above) spoke, I think, accurately for many. They would like the sweet bits without the sour. But since they know our earthly offer is a mix, they are not actually tempted. Christ on the Cross is not their plan for how to spend a weekend, nor constant reminders of fallen man in sin. We can keep our religion, and they will smile at us whenever they happen to be in a good mood. In a bad mood, they will persecute us.

This is, as it were, the fly in the ointment of that “happy-face Christianity” which the nice Episcopal bishop presented in his homily. Add love, add honey, and all will be well. It doesn’t work, and the churches where it is tried tend towards extinction. It doesn’t provide for the breadth of our needs, and it particularly doesn’t answer to our need for Redemption.

Nor, for that matter, would nonstop fire and brimstone hold the attention of the religiously curious. It does make for some variety, however, and a solid, well-informed belief in Hell can do wonders for those lost in advertisers’ messagings. For there is more to our task than catching passing trade.

Nor is our religion a mere combination of sweet and sour, from some cosmic take-away menu. It is an engagement of the whole human soul. We must resume the habit of presenting this whole, at every opportunity that God grants us. We must fix attention on the whole Christ – crucified, dead, and resurrected.


David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.