A Few Men Talked of Freedom, While England Talked of Ale

September 16, 2014

In 1907, G. K. Chesterton published a poem he entitled “The Secret People.”  The poem is a short history of the English people, their basic goodness and their essential wisdom in terms of knowing right and wrong.  However, Chesterton took issue with their actions; throughout this short poem of history he argues that their concerns were almost solely with their economic wellbeing and their liberty to focus their attentions exclusively on their daily lives and for this myopia, he reproved them.

Chesterton asserts that the average Englishman was/is more endowed with common sense than those leaders whose goal it was to labor for their peculiar ideas of freedom, particularly freedom from the Crown.  However, in each of the events he cites, he admonishes the Englishman for his silence; being more interested in mundane niceties than fighting for what is just:

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
There is many a fat farmer that drinks less cheerfully,
There is many a free French peasant who is richer and sadder than we.
There are no folk in the whole world so helpless or so wise.
There is hunger in our bellies, there is laughter in our eyes;
You laugh at us and love us, both mugs and eyes are wet:
Only you do not know us. For we have not spoken yet.


He writes of the suppression of Catholic monasteries in England while the common Englishman says nothing:

They burnt the homes of the shaven men, that had been quaint and kind,
Till there was no bed in a monk’s house, nor food that man could find.
The inns of God where no man paid, that were the wall of the weak.
The King’s Servants ate them all. And still we did not speak.


He writes about reign of Charles I in an indictment of England’s blindness to the tyranny of the “democratic” forces that opposed Charles.  Recall that Charles I was the last King of England who professed the divine right of kings and who was eventually executed for his various attempts to secure this right:

And the face of the King’s Servants grew greater than the King:
He tricked them, and they trapped him, and stood round him in a ring.
The new grave lords closed round him, that had eaten the abbey’s fruits,
And the men of the new religion, with their bibles in their boots,
We saw their shoulders moving, to menace or discuss,
And some were pure and some were vile; but none took heed of us.
We saw the King as they killed him, and his face was proud and pale;
And a few men talked of freedom, while England talked of ale.


The Englishman, too often consumed with navel gazing, let a few ideologues end up taking him in political directions he would not have freely chosen.  The Puritan's idea of freedom was not an authentic freedom, but the tyranny of a Neo-manichean dogmatism. Yet, the Englishman’s primary concern with Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans was not so much their desire to undermine English political structures and English life, as their puritanical suppression of major public feasts like Christmas.

This same attitude is prevalent in the United States polity today.  Too many U.S. citizens today are interested almost exclusively in their personal lives and give little notice to the common good. Not only is this phenomenon true of the vast majority of societies, it is true of the society which we call the Catholic Church. This malaise is found in the average Catholic.  The problem is most certainly not that he is unconcerned with political ideology; it is that he is unconcerned with the effect of the various political ideologies on the proclamation and living of the Gospel. Of the minority Catholic who is engaged in political life, unfortunately the same problem is manifest; his concern is not for the Gospel but his favorite political ideology.

The average Catholic is not only uninterested in political life, he is uninterested in the claims of those in the Catholic Church who proclaim a new type of freedom, the tyranny of anarchy.  And neither is he concerned with the authentic freedom proclaimed by the Magisterium.  The average Catholic is more concerned with his live-a-day life; he is likely to go with whatever and whomever comes along as long as it does not upset his routine.  He will not raise his head or his voice as long as he is assured he can keep drinking his Christmas ale.

This phenomenon is one of the major challenges of the New Evangelization.  The average Catholic’s attitude reflects that of society; rather than being leaven, he is the lump.  It is a failure of Catholics to understand and live their faith that has allowed the country and all too many in the Church to drift within our contemporary post-Christian, post-theist malaise. How does one to inject a new ardor for the Gospel and its proclamation among those paralyzed by this malaise?

The answer is to be found in the mirror.  It is those of us who take the faith seriously that need to begin to be better, holier Christians.  To pray more, to love more fully, and to become more zealous disciples of Christ.  The first step in our path to holiness is the first step we should take each day; it is to awaken with humility, with wonder and thanksgiving for the gift of each day and the gift of each person given us that day.  Beginning every day with humility is the key.  We might recommend our favorite litany by Cardinal Merry de Val:

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me. From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, Lord Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, deliver me, Lord Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Lord Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred before others, deliver me, Lord Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, Lord Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, deliver me, Lord Jesus.
From the desire of being highly regarded, deliver me, Lord Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Lord Jesus.
From the fear of being rebuked, deliver me, Lord Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Lord Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Lord Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, Lord Jesus.


That others may be loved more than I, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.
That in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I decrease, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I passed over, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I go unnoticed, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.
That others should be preferred before me in everything, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.

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