I have just discovered that Once I Was a Clever Boy, a blog I used to enjoy but was sorry to see in hiatus, has returned. John Whitehead, the blog’s author, is a friend and a Brother of the Little Oratory here in Oxford. He hasn’t put up any new content recently. Nevertheless, there was a long time when for whatever technical reason – either on John’s end or mine, I was never sure – the blog was totally inaccessible. I’m very happy to see it’s back, and I look forward to more content from this quintessentially Oxonian blog.
I have just been made aware of a very exciting new social media apostlate, Consoling Thoughts From Fr. Faber. This Facebook page posts various pious meditations and, as the title would suggest, consoling passages from Fr. Faber. Those who share my devotion to the Apostle of London will no doubt find this page a serious and salutary addition to their diet of spiritual content. It has my full endorsement.
Thus concludes Anno Domini MMXVIII. I hope all my readers had a very fruitful year, and I pray for them all to know many blessings in this coming one. I have a lot to be grateful for this year. I made so many wonderful friends, both via this blog and otherwise. You know who you are. My work seems to be progressing well enough. And I was published in First Things, Jesus The Imagination, and The Church Times. This blog received its 100,000th view. So the year was full of activity.
I also feel that I gained more insight into who I am as a person. I’d like to think that in some ways, at least, I’ve become a more self-aware and honest man, and that I’ve learned a little bit more about humility this year.
I encountered God in new ways at different points of the liturgical year and in various holy places. I befriended new saints.
For all this, I am profoundly grateful.
Here are the top 10 posts I published this year, by readership:
1. The Best Monastic Documentaries
Incidentally, my main New Year’s resolution for 2019 remains the same as it was in 2018. I don’t know if I lived up to it very well this past year, but I shall strive to do so in the next.
And to conclude my writings here for 2018,
Glory Be to the Father, and to the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
O Wisdom, be enthroned in my heart,
O Adonai, inflame my heart,
O Root of Jesse, bloom in my heart,
O Key of David, unlock my heart,
O Dayspring, shine in my heart,
O King of Nations, reign in my heart,
O Emmanuel, abide in my heart,
Now and forevermore.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous tradition of Christmas in America is decorating a Christmas tree. Whether live or artificial, green or white, festooned in tinsel or bedecked with bells, the Christmas tree is the image that adorns all our houses and heralds the coming of the Yuletide. And not just the houses of Christians. Many who celebrate Christmas as a merely secular holiday will still put up a tree. It just wouldn’t really feel like Christmas without it.
Yet the Christian discerns in this symbol something more than just a festive sign of the season.
First, a short excursus about symbols in general. Metaphor opens the speaker to the experience of “augmented reality,” though not at all in the way that phrase has come to be understood in the world of cheap tricks and tacky technology. Pokemon Go is not a metaphor. It’s just an add-on. It discerns nothing essential and establishes no real connections between unlike objects. Metaphor can. The truer the metaphor, the firmer the connection. It’s a dialectical process. Or, if you like a Trinitarian one: two unlike things are drawn together by the speaker, thus forming an entirely new third.
The Sophianic potential of language lies in metaphor. Name and metaphor permit us to imprint, image, and discern a level of reality beyond the merely immediate and sensible. That is why metaphor is impossible in the face of the Beatific Vision. All words die away, since the soul experiences the most heightened level of reality – Being itself.
Sophianic vision relies upon this kind of metaphorical thinking. Without dissolving the dogmas of the faith, Sophiology reads them sideways so as to gain an insight into the mystical realities more properly understood via poetry than, say, the logical language of the manuals. American Sophiologist Dr. Michael Martin has called for a “poetic metaphysics” by which we more potently discern the presence of God in His Wisdom, seen throughout Creation.
What would this “poetic metaphysics” look like beyond textual confines? That is, what would it look like if people actually lived out this search for the Wisdom of God?
For one thing, the soul that sees all in Wisdom will be always immersed in metaphor. The eyes of their heart would discern the connection of lower things to the higher. This is not mere cataphasis, the use of images in prayer. I mean that the daily impressions of life are experienced as taking place on more than one level of reality. The events of the day are read as symbols and metaphors. We encounter this in the life of the Ven. Seraphina di Dio:
“…Anything I looked at I was able to turn into a meditation… When I saw it raining, I thought of the refreshment which the rain brought to the earth and that without it the earth would be arid. I would say: ‘If the water of divine grace did not fall on the soul, it would dry up without providing the fruits of good works.’ … The sight of fish swimming in the sea made me remember how the saints are immersed in God… And in such wise everything, even the slightest things, served me for my spiritual nourishment.”-Ven. Seraphina di Dio
Such is one example of sapiential living. We might turn to another. Over at Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has furnished a charming passage from St. John of Karpathos:
Nothing is more weak and powerless than a spider. It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and extreme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its own work. To those who love idleness it says, in effect : ‘If anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat’ (2 Thess. 3 : 1o). The spider is far more silent than Pythagoras, whom the ancient Greeks admired more than any other philosopher because of the control that he exercised over his tongue. Although Pythagoras did not talk with everyone, yet he did speak occasionally in secret with his closest friends; and often he lavished nonsensical remarks on oxen and eagles. He abstained altogether from wine and drank only water. The spider, however, achieves more than Pythagoras: it never utters a single word, and abstains from water as well as from wine. Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering about according to its fancy, always hard at work – nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord, ‘who dwells on high but sees what is lowly’ (Ps . 1 1 3 : 5-6 . LXX), extends His providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.-St. John of Karpathos
One could name many other saints who exhibit this Sophianic tendency of vision through metaphor. For St. Paul of the Cross, as Fr. Faber notes,
“…everything served to remind him of God, and he used to imagine that all creatures cried out to entreat the love of man for Him who made them. He was often observed, when walking in the fields, to gaze earnestly at the flowers as he went along and to touch them with his stick, saying, ‘Hold your tongues; hold your tongues!’ And he used to tell his religious that the flowers were always calling upon them to lift up their hearts in love and adoration toward their heavenly Creator.”-Fr. Faber, All For Jesus, Ch. 6, pg. 153
When carefully fostered in the soul – usually by ascetic rigors and conscious efforts of love – it ceases to be merely Sophianic and takes on an iconographic character, such that everything in our field of sensible experience becomes a symbol of union with the higher realm it represents. Namely, God. Thus can we preserve the presence of God in our waking hours out of prayer.
So what does this have to do with Christmas trees?
The decoration of a Christmas tree is, in a certain sense, a concrete realization of this process. Bringing a part of the natural world into our home imprints something of the human and thus of the spiritual. We can see this with animals who have been domesticated. Cats and dogs become part of the family. We discern their personalities. They are not just “dog” but “Buster” or “Gabby.” Thus, name and metaphor go hand in hand in elevating the merely natural to something approximating the human.
We don’t personalize Christmas trees. But in placing them in our homes and filling them with glittering lights and baubles, we heighten the tree into something more than what it was. As we were commanded to do in Eden, we improve the creation and make it radiant. We lend it a new beauty, the fruit of our Godlike creativity. We place a star or an angel at its peak, and a reminder of Our Lord’s Nativity at its base. Thus we turn it into a little Tree of Life, reaching between Heaven and Earth, the natural world manifested in the splendor of its potential divinization.*
In other words, the power of metaphor allows us to experience the tree as something more than what it is at the purely material level. It becomes for us an icon of Holy Wisdom, of Christ abiding in His redeemed Creation.
I am reminded of today’s O Antiphon.
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.-O Antiphon for 17 Dec.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.
These words are manifested in so many ways throughout time and space. They don’t just belong to Advent. Yet the Christmas Tree can (if we come to it with a Sophianic imagination) serve as one meditative example of Wisdom “sweetly ordering all things” in this holy season.
It’s no surprise that Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov wrote favorably of the Christmas Tree.
*I realize of course that not all families use real trees, and that they don’t all place a Nativity under it. But even here, the power of metaphor enters in. In calling an assemblage of wire or aluminum or plastic a “tree,” we are already entering into the world of metaphor and artifice. In that case, we are only one degree removed from what I have described above.
The Church Times have just published an article in which I summarize some of my research on the connection of Anglo-Catholics and the occult world. I’d like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Sarah Apetrei, and co-supervisor, the Rev. Canon Robin Ward, for their support throughout all of this. I’d also like to thank Fr. James Lawson for the early help he provided as well as Dr. Michael Yelton and those various other figures who have discussed the matter with me over the past year, often in words of encouragement. Hopefully the full paper will be published someday. For now, read here.
I confess, I had meant to get this post out earlier. The end of term was hectic and the start of vacation distracting. So here I am, offering my thoughts on Advent reading when the season is already here and nearly halfway done. Still, we can begin to read true and edifying things on any day, especially in the a holy time set apart by the Church for reflection and contemplation of Our Lord in one of His cardinal mysteries. So I offer here a few reading ideas for those looking for a spiritual boost this winter.
1. In Sinu Jesu: When Heart Speaks to Heart – the Journal of a Priest at Prayer
This meditative book is the sort of thing you’ll want to take to Adoration. Written by an anonymous Benedictine monk, it is jam-packed with consoling thoughts and inspiring messages. The author relates the various locutions from Our Lord and, occasionally, the Virgin and Saints, received in the inward ear of the heart in the course of profound prayer. Over the course of several years’ worth of journal entries, we read of the author’s deep vocation to reparation and adoration for the sanctification of priests. I would recommend this volume to any men considering a vocation of any kind. Its rhythmic, prayerful passages breathe and bristle with a sense of holiness rare among contemporary spiritual authors. The voice of Our Lord sings through it all, not as a trumpet or thunderclap, but as “a whistling of a gentle air” (1 Kings 19:12 DRA). Speaking only as a layman, I can say that this book completely revolutionized my spiritual life. I wonder where I should be now if it had not come into my hands a little over two years ago.
2. Bethlehem or 3. All For Jesus
This list wouldn’t really be an Amish Catholic post about spiritual authors without some reference to Fr. Faber. The Apostle of London wrote many books about special devotions, graces, and mysteries of Our Lord’s life. His last volume, Bethlehem, is devoted to the birth and infancy of Jesus, making it especially suited for perusal at this season.
Like many of his other texts, Bethlehem is more devotional that practical. It is intended to inspire love for Our Lord under the particular mystery of his Incarnation. While this may be just what you need this Advent (and Christmas), you may desire something a bit more practical. How to grow in the practice of the love of Jesus? How to keep on in the unflagging task of Christian charity at a time so full of worldly distractions and weariness? How do we live out the Incarnation in our own lives?
If this is the sort of thing you’d prefer in your Advent reading, then perhaps turn to Fr. Faber’s first great devotional work, All For Jesus, or the Easy Ways of Divine Love.
In this great volume, it is Fr. Faber’s task to kindle the zeal of his readers by demonstrating the sheer ease of love. He points to concrete, simple practices by which to further what he calls “the Interests of Jesus,” to save other souls, and to sanctify our own.
All For Jesus is my main spiritual reading this Advent, and I have already found it working marvels. If you would love God with warmer enthusiasm and brighter joy, then read Fr. Faber!
4. “A Short Tale About the Antichrist.”
This short story by Vladimir Solovyov, the “Russian Newman,” may seem like an odd choice for Advent. Yet Advent is the apocalyptic season par excellence. The liturgy turns our ears to the voices of the prophets and our eyes towards the visions of the Last Day. And so it can be helpful to think creatively about what the end will be like.
I don’t believe Solovyov envisioned his (in some ways, rather prescient) tale of the future to be a literal prediction of what would happen. The man was not a fundamentalist, and this is not Left Behind. But he did see it as his spiritual last will and testament. The story is a powerful meditation on the nature of real evil, real Christian love, and what Christians will have to stand for in their last and terrible hour.
An edifying read, for sure.
5. The Book of Revelation
If you like your apocalypse unalloyed, then open your Bible, sit down, and read the entire Book of Revelation in one or two sittings. That may seem like a lot, but it brings lots of rewards. We often lose sight of the unity of the Bible’s individual books when we just pick at passages here and there. Reading the text fully through can help restore our vision of each book as what it is – an integral whole. With a book as symbol-laden as Revelation, that reclamation becomes even more important.
It is a holy and pious thing to meditate on the Second Coming of Our Lord in Advent. Reading the Apocalypse nourishes the soul’s sense of expectation and, indeed, her desire for the final judgment. The pious soul who seeks to be immersed in the text’s sapiential logic will gain many fruits. Those who go into it with only a narrow literalism will find nothing but an arid maze. This truth applies to all of Scripture, but most especially to its apocalyptic passages.
So, those are just five options for Advent reading. There are probably hundreds of other texts I could have chosen; thus we come one example of the great diversity that characterizes the true mind of the Church.
Advent is an apocalyptic season, in which we look forward to Our Lord’s “coming in the clouds on high.” For precisely this reason, it is also a deeply prophetic season. The Church’s selections from the prophets in her Advent liturgies are rich and bear much meditation. As a visual complement to this holy of the Church’s life, I give my readers a collection of images of the prophets.
These paintings are by the great academic artist, Frank O. Salisbury (1874-1962), a man whose career has largely been forgotten but whose work is no less resplendent for that. Salisbury made enemies in the art world for this unrelenting attacks on modern art. His own oeuvre represents the acme of post-Sargent portraiture. It is hard to find a better master of the form. A devout Methodist, Salisbury also produced several religious paintings, usually centered on the human form.
In 1954, he executed a major series depicting the various prophets of the Bible. These refulgent images are, I must admit, a little tainted by the Cecil B. DeMille style of orientalism. But what purity of expression he captures! And in such vivid hues! Each is a gem worth pondering at great length.
I show them here for the delight and edification of my readers.
And just as an added bonus, here’s his lovely Nativity, painted for and donated to St. Nicholas Church, Harpenden. You can read more about it here.
Earlier this year, I discovered a new friend in heaven – the Blessed Bernardo Francisco de Hoyos (1711-1735), a Jesuit mystic of the Sacred Heart. Today is his feast. I like Blessed Bernardo for a lot of reasons. I admit, it’s hard to get a great sense of his life story, as so many of the materials about him (or by him) are untranslated from their original Spanish. Nevertheless, a few things are clear.
We share a devotion to the Heart of Jesus. Blessed Bernardo received private revelations of Jesus in which he was shown the Sacred Heart, culminating in a monumental mystical union. While strange phenomena are by no means unheard-of in the lives of the saints, Bernardo’s story is unusual insofar as many of his experiences were more typical of female mystics. The Sacred Heart devotion itself was often seen (and ridiculed by Jansenists) as an effeminate innovation that oozed sentimentalism. It’s hard to square that view with the very real rigor of Blessed Bernardo’s Jesuit life. As usual, simple narratives tend to fail when placed against a far more interesting reality.
The Spanish priest died when he was only 24. I will be 24 in a little over a month. It’s hard to imagine coming to the same heights of sanctity and intimacy with Jesus in such a short time. I look at my own spiritual life – scattered with sins and shortcomings, easily worn out, so often caught in a kind of lax scrupulosity – and I wonder how Bernardo did it.
Of course, it does rather help if you enter a Jesuit novitiate at the age of 14, as Bernardo did. That’s a good ten years of arduous ascetic labor and practice at prayer. All the same, lots of men entered religious life as youths in the early modern era. Not all of them achieved mystical marriage, one of the highest states of the interior life. And that even with many decades in the habit.
It occurs to me that, at the recent Vatican Youth Synod, stories like the Blessed Bernardo’s were mostly absent. The challenge of sanctity – indeed, its romance and adventure – were tepidly drawn at best. The tone of the discussions and of the later summary document may have been interpreted by some as a compassionate, realistic, and open-minded approach to the realities of life in the 21st century. But surely there was more than a touch of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor about the whole thing. You know the style. Holiness really is too hard, so we should make things easier – allow them to reach some other goal, some lesser goodness that isn’t holiness at all.
The experience of all the saints, but especially mystics like Father Bernardo Francisco de Hoyos, runs counter to this maudlin spirituality.
The truth is much more dangerous, and much more exhilarating. Holiness demands heroic virtue. We are called to be heroes. But true heroism looks very different than what this world – or what a worldly hierarchy – thinks it is. It is a life of risk and sacrifice and no small discomfort. But the rewards it gives are beyond all telling.
Blessed Bernardo knew that. He knew that the only true recompense that the Christian will receive is Christ Himself. And so he went unflaggingly forward to the work he was given as a missionary of the Sacred Heart. His entire life was a brief, bright blaze of love for Jesus. In this, he rather resembles that other great devotionalist, Fr. Faber, who died at the age of 49, a full 27 years before Cardinal Newman. Souls like these are gifts to the whole Church. They kindle the love of God in their fellows and light the path to His holy mount.
But they also present us with a challenge. By incarnating the charity of God in such a visible way, they invite us to the same labors of love. All of us are called to gaze upon the Sacred Heart. Holiness is not an adventure closed to any of us, no matter how young (or old) we may be. If there is anything we can take from the story of Blessed Bernardo Francisco de Hoyos, priest, missionary, and mystic, it is this salutary truth.
Here is an extremely amusing (and, in its own way, edifying) little chapter from Introduction to the Devout Life. I’ve only just encountered it by chance. It’s passages like this that rather make one understand why Evelyn Underhill summed up his teaching in the one line, “Yes, indeed, my dear Duchess, as Your Grace so truly observes, God is love.”
One can almost hear the Gentleman Saint sipping his tea at the end of each numbered item in the list below.
CHAPTER XXXIII. Of Balls, and other Lawful but Dangerous Amusements.
DANCES and balls are things in themselves indifferent, but the circumstances ordinarily surrounding them have so generally an evil tendency, that they become full of temptation and danger. The time of night at which they take place is in itself conducive to harm, both as the season when people’s nerves are most excited and open to evil impressions; and because, after being up the greater part of the night, they spend the mornings afterwards in sleep, and lose the best part of the day for God’s Service. It is a senseless thing to turn day into night, light into darkness, and to exchange good works for mere trifling follies. Moreover, those who frequent balls almost inevitably foster their Vanity, and vanity is very conducive to unholy desires and dangerous attachments.
I am inclined to say about balls what doctors say of certain articles of food, such as mushrooms and the like—the best are not good for much; but if eat them you must, at least mind that they are properly cooked. So, if circumstances over which you have no control take you into such places, be watchful how you prepare to enter them. Let the dish be seasoned with moderation, dignity and good intentions. The doctors say (still referring to the mushrooms), eat sparingly of them, and that but seldom, for, however well dressed, an excess is harmful.
So dance but little, and that rarely, my daughter, lest you run the risk of growing over fond of the amusement.
Pliny says that mushrooms, from their porous, spongy nature, easily imbibe meretricious matter, so that if they are near a serpent, they are infected by its poison. So balls and similar gatherings are wont to attract all that is bad and vicious; all the quarrels, envyings, slanders, and indiscreet tendencies of a place will be found collected in the ballroom. While people’s bodily pores are opened by the exercise of dancing, the heart’s pores will be also opened by excitement, and if any serpent be at hand to whisper foolish words of levity or impurity, to insinuate unworthy thoughts and desires, the ears which listen are more than prepared to receive the contagion.
Believe me, my daughter, these frivolous amusements are for the most part dangerous; they dissipate the spirit of devotion, enervate the mind, check true charity, and arouse a multitude of evil inclinations in the soul, and therefore I would have you very reticent in their use.
To return to the medical simile;—it is said that after eating mushrooms you should drink some good wine. So after frequenting balls you should frame pious thoughts which may counteract the dangerous impressions made by such empty pleasures on your heart.
Bethink you, then—
1. That while you were dancing, souls were groaning in hell by reason of sins committed when similarly occupied, or in consequence thereof.
2. Remember how, at the selfsame time, many religious and other devout persons were kneeling before God, praying or praising Him. Was not their time better spent than yours?
3. Again, while you were dancing, many a soul has passed away amid sharp sufferings; thousands and tens of thousands were lying all the while on beds of anguish, some perhaps untended, unconsoled, in fevers, and all manner of painful diseases. Will you not rouse yourself to a sense of pity for them? At all events, remember that a day will come when you in your turn will lie on your bed of sickness, while others dance and make merry.
4. Bethink you that our Dear Lord, Our Lady, all the Angels and Saints, saw all that was passing. Did they not look on with sorrowful pity, while your heart, capable of better things, was engrossed with such mere follies?
5. And while you were dancing time passed by, and death drew nearer. Trifle as you may, the awful dance of death must come, the real pastime of men, since therein they must, whether they will or no, pass from time to an eternity of good or evil. If you think of the matter quietly, and as in God’s Sight, He will suggest many a like thought, which will steady and strengthen your heart.