The Music of the Holy Ghost

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A still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983). Clips from Tarkovsky’s films are often incorporated into the Rev Army’s music videos. (Source)

Not long ago, I came across a new band. What a singular group it is. Their music crosses and confuses genres. They produce content at a far scarcer rate than other musical acts. Even their name, taken from a Buñuel film, sets them apart from most of the offerings one comes across today.

Little did I know that I had stumbled upon a cult gem. The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus has been on the scene for quite a while. Almost thirty years ago, they released their first album, The Gift of Tears (1987). Since then, they have only come out with sporadic releases, such as 1990’s Mirror and 2015’s Beauty Will Save the World. The long hiatus has well earned them the title of “One of music’s most elusive and enigmatic acts,” as we can read on their BandCamp site.

Tim Cooper has a great review of their work over at The Quietus:

…the attention-averse trio, who regard themselves as a creative collective rather than a band, make wildly eclectic music rooted in liturgical texts and ecclesiastical iconography, contrasting ethereal beauty with stark brutalism. Celestial choirs rub their cassocked shoulders with squalls of industrial noise, political speeches are interwoven with celluloid dialogue, instrumentation ranges from sombre neo-classical piano to pounding dance beats by way of folk, free-form jazz and experimental psychedelia.

They draw together a variety of spiritual and cultural influences: folk Catholicism, peasant mysticism, Russian Orthodoxy, the experience of post-Soviet Europe, Simone Weil, Welsh poetry. Their work can, I think, be described as sophianic, but it is a sophanicity carefully drawn through the harried cracks of the fallen world. The truth that the Rev Army grips and holds up to the light gleams all the more for being refracted in the shards of our earthly mirror.

Here are some favorite songs with their proper music videos, many of which are just as important for the meaning of the piece as the score itself.

Come Holy Spirit” – the very first Rev Army song I discovered. A bit too much flute and too many drums for me, but it was different enough from anything I had ever heard that it caught my attention.

Bright Field” – the first one that captivated me. The upward lift of the music combined with R.S. Thomas’s stirring paraphrase of the Gospel, not to mention Tarkovsky’s silken, dreamlike visuals, all together inspire something like wonder. Whenever I listen to it, I am reminded of a poem by Rilke.

After the End” – a simple and haunting French ditty set to the grainy images of villagers at prayer. They seem to be visionaries.

Psalm” – a few women chant in English against an increasingly dissonant shower of quasi-industrial background noise. The juxtaposition strikes me as an artistic model of transcendence through persistent prayer.

Repentance” – the most Flannery O’Connor thing you will ever see or hear. I’ll just leave it at that.

Théme de l’homme qui n’a pas cru en lui méme” – a Latin-flavored and occasionally jazzy piece featuring footage from a (staged?) Spanish Lenten procession. In case you hadn’t already noticed, the band is extremely Catholic.

Joy of the Cross” – another Lenten procession, but this time with a soft-edged folk music that makes me think of Fleet Foxes.

Before the Ending of the Day” – the Compline hymn surrounded and supported by an airy yet pulsing larger song. Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev provides the meditative visuals. Note that one of the commenters on YouTube wrote, “Please keep making more of these. This helped still my soul.”

Something epicletic moves through their music. But one can find that quality in lots of other work. What sets the Rev Army apart isn’t just their obsession with the Holy Ghost, nor their stylistic eclecticism. It’s their powerful sense of mystery. They never shy away from the divine darkness with which the Holy Ghost enshrouds His manifold works of grace. How refreshing, in an age of “Spirit of the Council” muzak and shallow “praise and worship,” to find music that is overtly Christian and even mystical without ever becoming preachy, dated, or emotivist. They treat their subject, the perennial and universal longing of the human heart for God, with a rare artistic and spiritual sophistication.

Caught up in marvel at the saving mystery of the Holy Ghost, the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus is the real Catholic charismatic revival.

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An icon of the Descent of the Holy Ghost. (Source)

Elsewhere: Michael Martin on Heresy

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Haublin’s portrait of Jacob Boehme. (Source)

I have just finished a rather interesting piece by Michael Martin, perhaps the leading Catholic sophiologist, on the subject of heresy. Martin argues that we even ostensible heretics have something to offer orthodox Christians. It helps that he grounds his points more in lived experience than any kind of normative Christian discourse. I quote at length:

But cries of “Heresy!” are in no way confined to those usually identified as adherents of a religious conservatism. My own work in sophiology, for instance, moves into territory some might consider dangerously heretical, but the most vicious attacks on me and my work—-calling both me and it “satanic”—-have come not from those of a manualist persuasion, but from those more aligned with a social justice approach to religious questions (although the manualists and Neo-Thomists have not been my most sympathetic readers, at least they haven’t suspected that I was possessed!).

For my part, I doubt I’d have any faith at all were it not for heresy. As a former Waldorf teacher and a practicing biodynamic farmer, I don’t know who I’d be without encountering the work of Rudolf Steiner (a guy who will set off the “heretic alarm” in just about any religious tradition) who taught me, among other things, about the centrality of Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice for not only human beings but for the cosmos at a time when I was wandering in the desert of postmodernity and consumer culture. Likewise, had I not stumbled across Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ (based on the novel by Niko Kazantzakis) and Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal in my late twenties, I doubt I would have returned to the Catholic Church. Likewise, my engagement with the work of Jacob Boehme opened for me a way into religious understanding paralleled in some degree by the radical way Martin Heidegger redefined philosophy for me. There are many other heretics to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, but these will suffice.

I differ with Martin on some important points. I am much more sanguine towards the Dubia and the Correctio than he is (I see them as necessary for the preservation of orthopraxis as well as a helpful move away from ultramontane ecclesiology; both movements vindicate Cardinal Newman). Likewise, when Martin writes later that…

It may be that these so-called heretics possess something many allegedly “faithful” Christians don’t: a sincere approach to the figure of Jesus, unencumbered by obligations to dogma. Because of such sincerity, Jesus is able to bleed through obscurity and fable.

…he may be putting just a bit too fine a point on it. Dogma matters. One could cite any number of perfectly respectable theologians who write of how desperately we need dogma (once again, I think of Newman in the Apologia), but I’d rather not belabor the matter. The problem lies not with dogma, but with dogmatism, a tendency to regard far more as settled than actually is. Moreover, Martin makes much of the fact that he has “learned much about Jesus from heretics.”

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Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), the Magus of the North. A Lutheran whose idiosyncrasies could certainly earn him the label of heretic. (Source)

Here, I am in a somewhat qualified agreement with Martin. First, because I, too, have been deeply influenced by figures whom some would consider heretical, from George Herbert to Johann Georg Hamann to Jacob Boehme to Ernst Fuchs to William Blake. I came to the faith in part because my imagination was prepared by that deeply heretical musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. One of my closest mentors in college was an Armenian Orthodox theologian and ethicist —technically, a miaphysite. I have something approaching a devotion to Charles I, King and Martyr, even though he was not reconciled to Rome at the time of his death. Thomists at least would frown upon my fondness for St. Gregory Palamas and his mystical theology. A number of Jewish authors have helped me find my theological bearings—particularly Halevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Maimonides, and the authors of the Zohar. Various authors of the Frankfurt School made a tremendous impact on me in college. Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” still resonate deeply with me, and force me to reckon with the complications of my own tradition. If you want to be really strict about what constitutes heresy, even someone as ostensibly Marian and Ecclesial as T.S. Eliot, a poet who has shaped my thought in more ways than I know, would nevertheless be heretical for his high Anglicanism as well as his unsound views on birth control. And need I mention that far more egregious heretic, Herman Melville? Moby Dick was like a revelation for me when I first read it last year.

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Origen of Alexandria. Church Father and something of a heretic. (Source)

There are more thinkers I could cite who are problematic in the face of formal orthodoxy. The Catechism tells us,

Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” CCC 2089

I would wager that most if not all of the authors I mentioned could be charged with at least one of these sins. So what? I don’t regret the wisdom they have shared with me. To the contrary, I am a better person for my contact with their lives and works.

The fact is, most of us are probably indebted to heretics of some kind in some way or other. We arrive at this state, not through any deliberate, insidious intent, but merely by a thorough education. And what is education if not learning how to find diamonds amidst coal? A well-read man will inevitably encounter writers whose view of the world is imperfect (as his own is). But that encounter can be very beneficial if wedded to discretion and wisdom. Surely this maxim is just as true for the theologian as for any other scholar. The perfection of his discipline consists not in the purity of his intellectual lineage, but in attaining the vision of God. At a certain point, systemic rigor breaks down in the face of the absolute and ineffable mystery.

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The Philosophers, Mikhail Nesterov, 1917. Here we see both Fr. Pavel Florensky and (soon to be) Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov, two of the great Russian Sophiologists. While technically condemned as heretics by the Soviet Patriarch, their profound insights into the mysteries of Divine Wisdom remain seminal in contemporary Orthodox and Catholic theology. And that’s a good thing. (Source)

Let me add a brief theological note. Like Martin, I think sophiology is a terribly important idea. The sophiology of Bulgakov et al. was (sort of) condemned by a (compromised) Moscow Patriarchate in 1935. The Orthodox remain deeply divided over its actual status as a heresy. Nevertheless, its intellectual legacy lingers in both East and West, and it is still proving to be a fertile source of theological discussion. I pray that it will continue to develop in the 21st century.

Thirdly, as an historian, I have to admit that Martin’s conclusion isn’t all that unusual. Scholars have increasingly recognized since the 1930’s that, as a matter of historical fact, the boundaries between heresy and orthodoxy have been notably porous over the centuries. The case of Origen alone would suffice to illustrate the issue, though more could be cited. What may seem perfectly orthodox in one era could turn out to be declared heretical as doctrine develops and clarifies over the course of the ages. Or quite the opposite; we lay faithful can now receive the Blessed Sacrament in both kinds. Previously, Utraquism was condemned along with all the rest of Jan Hus’s errors (though personally, I dislike this liturgical practice and rarely receive in both kinds myself).

There are practical concerns at play, too. Theologians must retain a certain level of intellectual freedom if any kind of development is to happen at all. How are we to approach that freedom? How to canalize the vast and manifold energies of the spirit, so often diffused in an erratic array of chattering and solipsistic spurts of “dialogue” online? The free “Republic of Letters” spoken of by the Humanists and their early modern descendants is, I think, a much better model for our own theological era than the mechanistic logic and endless citation of authorities seen among the classical Scholastics. I’ll add that the increasingly important field of visual theology poses other important questions. The encryption and interpretation of meaning through art, emblems, ritual, and other aesthetic media opens itself to all manner of views. Some are orthodox, others heterodox. This very heterogeneity requires a certain degree of freedom for discussion and discernment. There is an irony in Martin’s rejection of the Dubia and the Correctio. Both documents rely upon and exemplify the very academic freedom that his piece latently extols.

Don’t get me wrong. Heresy is and always has been a sin, and a mortal one at that. We should oppose it; the proper authorities should correct it through the proper channels, and in the case of open and public heresy, the laity can and should do so as well. But Martin is right to note that the individual ideas of heretics can be fruitful for deepening properly orthodox meditations. More importantly, God can make whatever use of them He wishes. I doubt that Martin is or will be the only one who has “learned much about Jesus” from those deemed heretics.

When the Sacred is Strange: The Art of Giovanni Gasparro

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St. John Damascene and the St. Virgin Tricherusa, Giovanni Gasparro. Here we see Gasparro depicting a legend from the Saint’s life that is particularly appropriate for an artist. The work also represents the unity of Western and Eastern visual traditions in the transcendent Divinity. (Source)

UPDATE 4/2/20: It has recently come to my attention that Giovanni Gasparro, the artist profiled here, whose work I have admired at this blog on several occasions, has just produced a painting that reproduces the vicious anti-Semitic trope of Jewish ritual murder. This lie has historically led to violence against the Jews and, to put it lightly, is a subject unbecoming of a Christian painter. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms. While I used to look to Mr. Gasparro as a prime example of what Christian art could be in our postmodern era, his embrace of imagery more fit for the pages of Der Stürmer means that I can no longer endorse him. Nevertheless, I have decided to keep this essay up online because it enunciates certain principles about art that I think remain important. I hope that my readers will understand that they reflect an assessment of Mr. Gasparro’s value as religious art that I no longer hold. 

Recently there came into my newsfeed an article by Hilary White Obl.S.B. of What’s Up with Francischurch?. The piece was an extended criticism of Giovanni Gasparro, an Italian artist whose paintings inspired a few of the meditations I have written before on this blog. As someone who has long admired Mr. Gasparro’s Neo-Baroque art, I was happy to see that Rorate Caeli recently profiled one of his pieces. Ms. White was, it seems, partially responding to this attention. However, the more I read of her article, the more I found myself in stark disagreement with her analysis and broader philosophy.

While I have in the past appreciated her reporting as well as the monastic spirit she brings to her work, I confess that I was surprised at the poor quality of her post. I would not ordinarily seek out controversy, but as it seems that Ms. White’s post is making the rounds of the Tradisphere, I felt it imperative to offer a counter perspective.

There are many problems with the article. It is a textbook example of how not to write about art and theology, failing comprehensively at description, prescription, and imagination. She focuses too heavily on one work, Gasparro’s St. Pius X Pontifex Maximus. When she looks at other examples of his art, her analysis – if that is the right word for her summary denunciations – always remains far too cursory to do justice to such a talented artist. And while she notes that Gasparro is a master draughtsman, she follows up this comment with the presumptive assertion that Gasparro “is someone who still approaches sacred subjects with a distinctly modernist mindset.”

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St. Pius X Pontifex Maximus, Giovanni Gasparro. (Source)

There are overarching philosophical problems with Ms. White’s argument. But I’d prefer to begin with her shoddy treatment of the material itself.

To start with a small, but, I think, a representative example; Ms. White claims that in Gasparro’s portrait of Pope St. Pius X, the light falls on the Pope’s face in a sinister way. She writes,

But the painting of Pius X is underlit, a type of lighting that we associate with evil. If you see horror movies, the light is often placed this way on a face to give it a frightening, even demonic effect. It’s what springs to mind: where does a light come from if it’s up from below? Still, is hell’s light this white, electric glare?

This effect, illuminating the facial structure from an odd and unnatural angle – light doesn’t usually come from the ground up, still less heavenly light – the underside of the brow ridge lit up, giving the eye sockets a sickly, sunken appearance, etc… None of that is going to be found in genuine devotional sacred art.

An interesting idea, but one that misses the mark.

For one thing, the Pope is not underlit. It would be more accurate to say that he’s side-lit. There is a striking similarity in the way the light falls in Gasparro’s piece and the photograph of St. Pius to which Ms. White compares it. Nor is side-lighting unusual in Catholic art. Zubarán’s famous St. Francis in Meditation (1635-39) uses almost exactly the same angle for a much more sinister effect.

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St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, Giovanni Gasparro. In which a saint is underlit, and with good reason. (Source)

Her rather contrived interpretation requires one of two presuppositions: first, that the symbolic lexicon of sacred, or, indeed, Western art is so narrow as to entail only a very limited range of connotations in the use of light, and secondly, that Gasparro’s work is intrinsically profane, deceptive, or downright evil. Neither of these assumptions is fair to the the artwork. They obscure its meaning rather than illuminate it.

But this point is relatively minor compared to some of Ms. White’s other egregious analysis. She dismisses Gasparro’s oeuvre as “surrealist, not sacred art,” with particular attention to his common motif of multiplied hands. She takes exception to the way he depicts faces, as well. Once again, we can see this tendency on display in her take on the Pius X portrait:

Giuseppe Sarto – even in death – had a very “beatific” face, handsome and always with a very assured and calm expression. I can’t imagine him ever making a face like the one in the painting. In fact, it looks more like what you’d get if you cloned Pius X and added a few drops of Nigel Farage.

She goes on to suggest that the “lumps and bumps” on the face of Gasparro’s Pius X are unsound, and that his expression inappropriately reflects “apprehension, not adoration.”

I’ll admit, the likeness is imperfect. She’s not totally off to note the resemblance with Nigel Farage, an unfortunate quality of the painting. Nevertheless, these indignant statements reflect more on Ms. White’s failure of imagination than they do Mr. Gasparro’s art. Moreover, mightn’t the Pope’s face also convey a whole range of emotions? Instead of apprehension, couldn’t the Pope’s expression show humble supplication? Or simply the holy Fear of God that priests ought to hold in their hearts as they offer the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? And might not Pope Sarto have made much the same face at the altar as he spoke the sacred and secret words to the Almighty? Is she really incapable of imagining him “ever making a face like the one in the painting?” Sure it’s not that hard.

Ms. White continues in this vein at some length.

The “light” from the Eucharist isn’t actually light. It illuminates nothing, there is no reflection of it on the face or hands or vestments. The halo is equally dead as a light source, since it falls on nothing. The only light on the figure is from this lower left white source – like a stage light. The non-light from the Eucharist could be a signal; is he saying, “This is NOT the light of the world”?

One gets the impression that the message of the painting is that Eucharistic theology is deception; there is no light from the Host, the celebrant does not believe; his face says “this is all theatre & flummery”

In fact, the more you look at it, the more the feeling grows that this is actually a parody of sacred art. As a friend of mine commented, “His face in no way looks beatific.” There’s something in this hyperrealism, all the lumpiness and the harsh white lighting, that doesn’t say heavenly to me, but psychotic. They seem like subtle corruptions of reality.

What an extraordinary concatenation of assertions.

A few questions come to mind immediately. First, why must the Eucharist necessarily illumine anything? There are, of course, discernible rays of light emanating from it, and any ordinary viewer who sees the painting would probably understand what is meant spiritually. But why should that light be seen to rest on anything in particular, when it’s already an unearthly light to begin with? Secondly, why do halos need to be light sources at all? David Clayton has argued at New Liturgical Movement that:

…the art of the High Renaissance and Baroque is aiming to portray historical man (and not as with the icon eschatological man united with God in heaven), what the artists are doing might in fact be consistent with this. One might propose that because the aura of uncreated light, the nimbus, would not be as visible (to the same degree at any rate) in fallen man, even if that man is a saint. So it would seem that the artist might choose not to portray a halo very faintly, as a slight glow, or even not at all.

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The Madonna Benois, Leonard da Vinci. One of the paintings to which Clayton draws our attention – note that the halos of both are just golden circles, not lights. (Source).

Clayton’s division between iconography and art is an important, to which we will return, in a certain sense, later. For now, I’ll merely note two facts: a) it is extraordinarily commonplace in Western art to find halos that don’t function as any kind of light source, and b) the halo in Gasparro’s painting of the Pope is a diffuse but definite illumination. I can’t help but feel I am looking at an altogether different image than Ms. White, based on how badly she has described it. Instead of attempting to determine what the artist is actually communicating with what he has shown, Ms. White has given us a testimony of her own reactions.

Where she does attend to the painting as such, she uses the overly suspicious hermeneutic of a conspiracy theorist. The least probable and most malignant of interpretations come to the fore. Instead of merely asserting, as she is free to do, that Gasparro has painted a bad bit of sacred art, she instead goes so far as to accuse the artist of parodying the sacred.

There may be something grotesque, kitschy, or even campy about Gasparro’s oeuvre. But the grotesque, kitsch, and camp are three typical Catholic idioms. Look at the little prints of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts surrounded by roses of all colors, adored by angels in little white gowns. Look at the gargoyles that grow like frightful stone pimples from the corners of our Cathedral spires. Look at the contorted muscles and thorn-choked skin of the Isenheim Altarpiece. Look at the Rococo churches that dot the landscape of the old Hapsburg Lands. Look at the Spanish processions of Holy Week, with all those peaked hoods and gilt statues in the streets. Look for the buskins and buckles of the pre-conciliar clerics. Look at the huge folds of watered silk enshrouding cardinals and archbishops and all manner of monsignori in that more confident age of the Church’s triumph. Look indeed at the splendid choir dress of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest in our day! Look at Cardinal Burke in his glorious cappa magna (incidentally, Gasparro has done a charming portrait of him, too).

There is something delightfully other, delightfully weird, delightfully over-the-top about our religion. And surely, all of this is meet and right. The priest is other. The Church is other, and should appear mad in a world gone mad. Flannery O’Connor (probably) said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Whatever its actual provenance, I take this saying as a true maxim of Catholic life in the modern world. I don’t mind if our art reflects that tendency for the strange, even if it disturbs us a little. I would be more suspicious if it didn’t.

We are all of us living as strangers, both to the world and to heaven. Gasparro’s art confronts us with this quality of strangeness, throws it back in our face – and startles us. Good. The Gospel is a very startling tale indeed.

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Torculus Christi. Mystic press with St. Gabriele dell’Addolorata and St. Gemma Galgani, Giovanni Gasparro. One of his more overtly weird pieces, but one that is deeply rooted in Catholic mystical and artistic tradition. (Source)

Moving on to a few of Ms. White’s other statements, we come to her distinction between surrealist and sacred art. I happen to be working on a piece right now that will argue that surrealism is an artistic movement that, purged of its original anticlerical animus, can open up plenty of new avenues for a specifically Catholic spiritual art. Indeed, there is already quite a corpus of work that we might reasonably call Catholic surrealism, and I hope to incorporate it into that argument. In the meantime, I refute her argument thus.

Ms. White also takes exception with Gasparro’s very common use of multiplied hands in his paintings. She writes in one of her more patronizing captions,

He seems to be really big into this creepy thing with the multiple floating hands. This is what I would call “schtick” and it is common among highly trained younger artists who think that having a schtick will get them brand-recognition.

This wholesale dismissal is maybe the worst part of the essay. Once again, it evinces a refusal to engage with what Mr. Gasparro has put on the canvas for our consideration, summarizing it tidily in order to condemn it tout court.

Gasparro’s multiplication of hands – or, in some cases, other body parts – serves two functions in his art. First, it can express the passing of time. In The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola (2015), the doubled set of hands represent discreet acts. Secondly, it can express numerous levels of spiritual meaning that otherwise might be missed through a more conventional image. Manipulating gesture opens up the image. This is particularly true in Gasparro’s Speculum Iustitiate (2014), St. Nicholas of Bari (2016), and his deeply moving portrait of Pius VII, Quum memoranda (Servant of God, Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti) (2014).

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The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola, Giovanni Gasparro. (Source)

The doubling invites the viewer to consider each act or spiritual meaning in turn and to ponder how the subject may be acting in each case. The multiplication of hands invites us into a secondary, meditative dimension of the work. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I have found his work a very fruitful spur to precisely this kind of spiritual meditation.

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Transunstanziazione, Giovanni Gasparro. This image would be perfectly at home in a church. (Source)

Take one of Gasparro’s finest pieces, Transunstanziazione (2009). I will repeat here what I wrote about it in my Corpus Christi piece:

Three pairs of hands, like the three pairs of wings on the seraphim and cherubim, bear aloft a bleeding host in undifferentiated space. The three sets of hands appear the samethey are, perhaps, the hands of the same priest captured over the lapse of time. This distortion of time and space lends the image a sense of eternity. We are viewing something transcendent. The Eucharist is not just an earthly event. It is also a rite which happens forever in the cosmic liturgy of heaven. And who is the Great High Priest offering that liturgy for us mortals? Who but Christ? In Gasparro’s image, Christ is present as priest and victim.

The three pairs of hands also remind us of the Trinity. When we approach the Eucharist, we truly approach the Triune God. At every Mass, the act of Transubstantiation only happens because of the work of the whole Trinity. Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit, through the hands of His priests and the prayer of His bride, the Church. It is meet and right that we should consider the painting at this point between the Ordinary Form celebrations of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi.

The painting has a certain sacramentality, in that, like the liturgy, it captures something of the invisible and manifests it to our earthbound senses. Looking at Gasparro’s painting, we have the sense that we are glimpsing something profound, unsettling, and sacredsomething ordinarily hidden from us. Do we not hear the words of St. Thomas’s Corpus Christi hymn, Lauda Sion?

Every time I return to this painting, I find something deeper in it. I’ll add that the multiplication of hands is a trope that exists in the work of that most unimpeachable of Catholic Artists, the Blessed Fra Angelico, who uses it in virtually the same way as Gasparro.

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The Mocking of Christ, Fra Angelico. Here he uses hands in the same ways that Gasparro does – to telescope sequential events into one image, to provide an insight into hidden action, and to lead us into meditation. Two of my Facebook friends noticed the formal and spiritual kinship between the two artists. (Source)

Of course, I don’t expect Ms. White or anyone else to have the same approach to every work of art as I do. If she finds Gasparro “creepy,” that is her right. But it is not an argument against Gasparro’s Catholicity. It is a subjective and affective assessment of his art, and thus it lies more in the realm of taste than aesthetic theology. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having and describing a visceral reaction to a work of art. I’m perfectly happy to say de gustibus and leave it at that.

Unfortunately, Ms. White expatiates about what constitutes “sacred art,” which, she claims, is emphatically not what Mr. Gasparro is doing.

She writes,

Knowing nothing about him other than what he paints, I have no idea what this artist intends – and that right there should tell you that he’s NOT doing sacred art – but it seems that in general hyperrealism simply isn’t going to work for devotional art. It’s always going to come across as strange and parodic, because the purpose of devotional painting is not to depict ordinary earthly reality – with all its “warts” – but a supernaturalised, idealised and perfected reality, a redeemed reality, that can only be occasionally glimpsed in this life by seeing the saints.

Sacred art is devotional art. If it isn’t devotional, it’s a parody of the sacred.

Where do I begin?

First of all, it doesn’t matter what the artist intends. We emphatically don’t need to know the artist’s intentions to appreciate what exists in the constructed world of the art-object. It can be helpful, but it really isn’t necessary. “Intention” is one of those terms that is always so heterogeneous and slippery as to be virtually meaningless. Consider the range of “intentions” that might be implicit in any work of art. Most artists of the Renaissance probably intended to produce images that would please their wealthy patrons so that they could keep eating. Moreover, it seems that a great deal of eros generated quite a lot of the Western canon. No doubt at times the souls of the artists were illuminated by the grandeur of their work. But we can’t possibly know to what extent the deeply fallible men (and they were almost all men) intended to invest their work with a consciously spiritual meaning.

What’s more, Ms. White’s dislike for “hyperrealism” as well as “surrealism” leads her to miss the fact that Gasparro’s work strikes an incarnational balance between the two. His subjects are recognizably human, but in the strange art-world he depicts, they are charged with the heavy presence of a mystery far beyond their humanity. They share our condition while pointing towards a world that stands beyond it.

It bears mentioning that her dislike of “ordinary earthly reality – with all its ‘warts'” would necessarily strike Caravaggio from the canon of Catholic masters. Of course, Gasparro resembles Caravaggio more than any other artist. Perhaps she would be glad to see him go. Who else would disappear under Ms. White’s discriminating eye? Rubens and his corpulent maidens? Matthias Grunewald and his unpleasant crucifixions? How about Carlo Crivelli and the sly, malevolent eyes he gives to his saints? What are we to do with the Mannerists and all the distended limbs that litter their canvases? And although he was no Catholic, are we to write off the value of Rembrandt’s religious work because he dares to show the uneven surface of human flesh? Would this not be precisely the least Catholic impulse of all – to fly from the corporeality of our existence, and of the way God uses it?

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Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio. This magnificent portrayal of Judith’s triumph over the wicked general is apparently not “sacred art” under Ms. White’s criteria. (Source)

Ms. White insists on idealism and devotionalism in sacred art. Anything that fails in either of these qualities must be consigned to the great heap of Modernist parody.

Yet both of these are deeply misbegotten efforts. First, when she speaks of “supernaturalised, idealised and perfected reality, a redeemed reality,” she is using the language of iconography. There is indeed much to commend the hallowed iconographic traditions of the Greeks and Slavs (not to mention the Armenians). But Byzantine icons are subject to strict canons, types, and lineages. An iconographer’s process and material are, to a certain extent, determined for him. Longstanding customs surround the production and ritual use of the icons. Part of the reason that theologians can work from the icons as a source in their writing is that those customs safeguard and guarantee the orthodoxy of the images. And the spirituality they have fostered over the centuries is one I admire; it has quickened my own Christian life.

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The Most Chaste Heart of St. Joseph, Giovanni Gasparro. Something nigh-unprecedented like this devotional image would be impossible if Western art followed strict canons like the Byzantines do. (Source)

Nevertheless, that’s not what we do in the West. While some artists have managed to give us glimpses of a transcendent realm of sophianic glory (one thinks of the Cusco School and some of those Catholic surrealists I was talking about), they are certainly not obliged to do so by force of tradition. One can lament the fact that we developed a much freer sense of sacred art. I don’t, both because I like statues and because I think the relative freedom of artists has been an enormous boon to civilization and the Church.

We can definitely learn from icons, in part because they remind us of where our own tradition has been. Before this year’s terrible earthquake, Ms. White’s own monastery had a wonderful fresco that captured precisely this quality of enrichment from the East that can and should be productively pursued by Catholic artists. But we ought not make the spiritual vision of the East normative in the West, just as we would decry any effort to impose Western forms on the East. And so I entirely reject her attempt to foist on Western Catholic art the strict confines of the icons.

Secondly, I’m bothered by instrumentalist approaches to art, including an assessment that rests heavily on whether the piece in question is “edifying” or “devotional.” That’s a largely meaningless standard – much more indistinct than the question of whether something is beautiful – since it places the center of the art’s meaning and quality in the affective response of the viewer rather than its own constructed reality and the way that construction interacts with transcendental standards. Namely, beauty.

The idea that specifically sacred art should be a) “devotional,” and b) in a church is a narrow, limiting, overly contextual approach to art. It is only helpful in the strict sense of guidance for church decoration. If Ms. White had limited the purview of her argument to what should count as specifically Liturgical Art, that is, what type of art should be placed in a church for the public veneration and instruction of the faithful in a ritual context, she might have a point. But she doesn’t write within that important qualifier. Instead, she uses Mr. Gasparro’s oeuvre to think about sacred art in general, and arrives at the rather flattening dictum that “Sacred art is devotional art. If it isn’t devotional, it’s a parody of the sacred.”

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Blessed Pius IX Pontifex Maximus, Giovanni Gasparro. Because artists who are really modernist heretics are drawn to depicting Pio Nono in prayer. (Source)

The conclusions she draws are totally unworkable as a Catholic approach to aesthetics. Imagine how much poetry and how much music we would have to surrender if we tried to carry the standards of idealism and devotionalism into the other arts in any kind of normative way.

Catholics should be concerned about the quality and orthodoxy of their sacred art. Insofar as Ms. White’s article represents that concern, it is an admirable effort. I’ll add that Ms. White and I probably share a similar exasperation with some of the trends in poor church art and architecture that are so maddening today. Likewise, we no doubt share a desire for a renewal of the Catholic arts. But Ms. White’s artistic philosophy smacks too much of Savonarola. While she is willing to summarily cast Gasparro’s art into the bonfire of the vanities, I contend that he is one of the Church’s most important living artists, alongside Daniel Mitsui, Matthew Alderman, Raúl Berzosa, Ken Woo, Alvin Ong, and others. I also share Rebecca Bratten Weiss’s views on the arts more broadly. We Catholics, and especially those of us who consider ourselves fairly Traditional, are sometimes too “self-referential” (if I may borrow a term favored by the Pope). As Weiss notes:

Toni Morrison, for instance, is a Catholic Nobel laureate whose works are filled with themes of community and redemption. But the Catholic critics who enthuse over Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene regard Morrison only as a controversial writer on race relations. “She’s not practicing,” they might say, as an excuse to ignore her. And yet, C.S. Lewis, who is revered in their circles, was never even Catholic at all.

Mary Karr – the keynote speaker at the conference – not only is a Catholic convert, but wrote extensively about her conversion, but is deemed by some not to be a “real” Catholic writer, because of her openness about certain sexual issues. And yet Graham Greene was a notorious womanizer who slept with over 300 prostitutes, was condemned by church spokespersons in his time, and closed The End of the Affair with the prayer: “O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.”

Perhaps the critics who are timid about these powerful Catholic writers working right now in our midst are waiting for someone else to “baptize” them? Perhaps they are waiting for someone else to say “I heard God there” – because they, themselves, have not learned to open the inner chambers of the ear? Because we do not have a robust Catholic arts culture that teaches us to open all the portals for reception, but instead have embraced a misnamed “Benedict Option” which is all about putting up walls and barriers, drawing those lines in the sand.

I concur, and would extend the same sort of criticism to Ms. White and those who support her view of the arts. Let us not fall into that old trap of mistaking the modern for Modernism. Christ is King over all. Let Catholic artists explore the plenitude of that Kingship over all, in all, and through all – even if looks strange to our worldly eyes.

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Christ the King, Giovanni Gasparro. May we always serve Him with ardent charity and zeal for the beauty of His house. (Source)

Newman on the Cross of Christ

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An icon of the Holy Cross. (Source)

My favorite sermon by John Henry Newman is directly germane to our feast today. He preached it at St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, while still an Anglican. Though originally delivered on the sixth Sunday of Lent, the text fits admirably for today’s mystery, I take it from the Newman Reader, which makes available all of his writings for free online.

The Cross of Christ the Measure of the World

“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me.” John xii. 32.

A GREAT number of men live and die without reflecting at all upon the state of things in which they find themselves. They take things as they come, and follow their inclinations as far as they have the opportunity. They are guided mainly by pleasure and pain, not by reason, principle, or conscience; and they do not attempt to interpret this world, to determine what it means, or to reduce what they see and feel to system. But when persons, either from thoughtfulness of mind, or from intellectual activity, begin to contemplate the visible state of things into which they are born, then forthwith they find it a maze and a perplexity. It is a riddle which they cannot solve. It seems full of contradictions and without a drift. Why it is, and what it is to issue in, and how it is what it is, and how we come to be introduced into it, and what is our destiny, are all mysteries.

In this difficulty, some have formed one philosophy of life, and others another. Men have thought they had found the key, by means of which they might read what is so obscure. Ten thousand things come before us one after another in the course of life, and what are we to think of them? what colour are we to give them? Are we to look at all things in a gay and mirthful way? or in a melancholy way? in a desponding or a hopeful way? Are we to make light of life altogether, or to treat the whole subject seriously? Are we to make greatest things of little consequence, or least things of great consequence? Are we to keep in mind what is past and gone, or are we to look on to the future, or are we to be absorbed in what is present? How are we to look at things? this is the question which all persons of observation ask themselves, and answer each in his own way. They wish to think by rule; by something within them, which may harmonize and adjust what is without them. Such is the need felt by reflective minds. Now, let me ask, what is the real key, what is the Christian interpretation of this world? What is given us by revelation to estimate and measure this world by? The event of this season,—the Crucifixion of the Son of God.

It is the death of the Eternal Word of God made flesh, which is our great lesson how to think and how to speak of this world. His Cross has put its due value upon every thing which we see, upon all fortunes, all advantages, all ranks, all dignities, all pleasures; upon the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It has set a price upon the excitements, the rivalries, the hopes, the fears, the desires, the efforts, the triumphs of mortal man. It has given a meaning to the various, shifting course, the trials, the temptations, the sufferings, of his earthly state. It has brought together and made consistent all that seemed discordant and aimless. It has taught us how to live, how to use this world, what to expect, what to desire, what to hope. It is the tone into which all the strains of this world’s music are ultimately to be resolved.

Look around, and see what the world presents of high and low. Go to the court of princes. See the treasure and skill of all nations brought together to honour a child of man. Observe the prostration of the many before the few. Consider the form and ceremonial, the pomp, the state, the circumstance; and the vainglory. Do you wish to know the worth of it all? look at the Cross of Christ.

Go to the political world: see nation jealous of nation, trade rivalling trade, armies and fleets matched against each other. Survey the various ranks of the community, its parties and their contests, the strivings of the ambitious, the intrigues of the crafty. What is the end of all this turmoil? the grave. What is the measure? the Cross.

Go, again, to the world of intellect and science: consider the wonderful discoveries which the human mind is making, the variety of arts to which its discoveries give rise, the all but miracles by which it shows its power; and next, the pride and confidence of reason, and the absorbing devotion of thought to transitory objects, which is the consequence. Would you form a right judgment of all this? look at the Cross.

Again: look at misery, look at poverty and destitution, look at oppression and captivity; go where food is scanty, and lodging unhealthy. Consider pain and suffering, diseases long or violent, all that is frightful and revolting. Would you know how to rate all these? gaze upon the Cross.

Thus in the Cross, and Him who hung upon it, all things meet; all things subserve it, all things need it. It is their centre and their interpretation. For He was lifted up upon it, that He might draw all men and all things unto Him.

But it will be said, that the view which the Cross of Christ imparts to us of human life and of the world, is not that which we should take, if left to ourselves; that it is not an obvious view; that if we look at things on their surface, they are far more bright and sunny than they appear when viewed in the light which this season casts upon them. The world seems made for the enjoyment of just such a being as man, and man is put into it. He has the capacity of enjoyment, and the world supplies the means. How natural this, what a simple as well as pleasant philosophy, yet how different from that of the Cross! The doctrine of the Cross, it may be said, disarranges two parts of a system which seem made for each other; it severs the fruit from the eater, the enjoyment from the enjoyer. How does this solve a problem? does it not rather itself create one?

I answer, first, that whatever force this objection may have, surely it is merely a repetition of that which Eve felt and Satan urged in Eden; for did not the woman see that the forbidden tree was “good for food,” and “a tree to be desired”? Well, then, is it wonderful that we too, the descendants of the first pair, should still be in a world where there is a forbidden fruit, and that our trials should lie in being within reach of it, and our happiness in abstaining from it? The world, at first sight, appears made for pleasure, and the vision of Christ’s Cross is a solemn and sorrowful sight interfering with this appearance. Be it so; but why may it not be our duty to abstain from enjoyment notwithstanding, if it was a duty even in Eden?

But again; it is but a superficial view of things to say that this life is made for pleasure and happiness. To those who look under the surface, it tells a very different tale. The doctrine of the Cross does but teach, though infinitely more forcibly, still after all it does but teach the very same lesson which this world teaches to those who live long in it, who have much experience in it, who know it. The world is sweet to the lips, but bitter to the taste. It pleases at first, but not at last. It looks gay on the outside, but evil and misery lie concealed within. When a man has passed a certain number of years in it, he cries out with the Preacher, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Nay, if he has not religion for his guide, he will be forced to go further, and say, “All is vanity and vexation of spirit;” all is disappointment; all is sorrow; all is pain. The sore judgments of God upon sin are concealed within it, and force a man to grieve whether he will or no. Therefore the doctrine of the Cross of Christ does but anticipate for us our experience of the world. It is true, it bids us grieve for our sins in the midst of all that smiles and glitters around us; but if we will not heed it, we shall at length be forced to grieve for them from undergoing their fearful punishment. If we will not acknowledge that this world has been made miserable by sin, from the sight of Him on whom our sins were laid, we shall experience it to be miserable by the recoil of those sins upon ourselves.

It may be granted, then, that the doctrine of the Cross is not on the surface of the world. The surface of things is bright only, and the Cross is sorrowful; it is a hidden doctrine; it lies under a veil; it at first sight startles us, and we are tempted to revolt from it. Like St. Peter, we cry out, “Be it far from Thee, Lord; this shall not be unto Thee.” [Matt. xvi. 22.] And yet it is a true doctrine; for truth is not on the surface of things, but in the depths.

And as the doctrine of the Cross, though it be the true interpretation of this world, is not prominently manifested in it, upon its surface, but is concealed; so again, when received into the faithful heart, there it abides as a living principle, but deep, and hidden from observation. Religious men, in the words of Scripture, “live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved them and gave Himself for them:” [Gal. ii. 20.] but they do not tell this to all men; they leave others to find it out as they may. Our Lord’s own command to His disciples was, that when they fast, they should “anoint their head and wash their face.” [Matt. vi. 17.] Thus they are bound not to make a display, but ever to be content to look outwardly different from what they are really inwardly. They are to carry a cheerful countenance with them, and to control and regulate their feelings, that those feelings, by not being expended on the surface, may retire deep into their hearts and there live. And thus “Jesus Christ and He crucified” is, as the Apostle tells us, “a hidden wisdom;”—hidden in the world, which seems at first sight to speak a far other doctrine,—and hidden in the faithful soul, which to persons at a distance, or to chance beholders, seems to be living but an ordinary life, while really it is in secret holding communion with Him who was “manifested in the flesh,” “crucified through weakness,” “justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, and received up into glory.”

This being the case, the great and awful doctrine of the Cross of Christ, which we now commemorate, may fitly be called, in the language of figure, the heart of religion. The heart may be considered as the seat of life; it is the principle of motion, heat, and activity; from it the blood goes to and fro to the extreme parts of the body. It sustains the man in his powers and faculties; it enables the brain to think; and when it is touched, man dies. And in like manner the sacred doctrine of Christ’s Atoning Sacrifice is the vital principle on which the Christian lives, and without which Christianity is not. Without it no other doctrine is held profitably; to believe in Christ’s divinity, or in His manhood, or in the Holy Trinity, or in a judgment to come, or in the resurrection of the dead, is an untrue belief, not Christian faith, unless we receive also the doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice. On the other hand, to receive it presupposes the reception of other high truths of the Gospel besides; it involves the belief in Christ’s true divinity, in His true incarnation, and in man’s sinful state by nature; and it prepares the way to belief in the sacred Eucharistic feast, in which He who was once crucified is ever given to our souls and bodies, verily and indeed, in His Body and in His Blood. But again, the heart is hidden from view; it is carefully and securely guarded; it is not like the eye set in the forehead, commanding all, and seen of all: and so in like manner the sacred doctrine of the Atoning Sacrifice is not one to be talked of, but to be lived upon; not to be put forth irreverently, but to be adored secretly; not to be used as a necessary instrument in the conversion of the ungodly, or for the satisfaction of reasoners of this world, but to be unfolded to the docile and obedient; to young children, whom the world has not corrupted; to the sorrowful, who need comfort; to the sincere and earnest, who need a rule of life; to the innocent, who need warning; and to the established, who have earned the knowledge of it.

One more remark I shall make, and then conclude. It must not be supposed, because the doctrine of the Cross makes us sad, that therefore the Gospel is a sad religion. The Psalmist says, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy;” and our Lord says, “They that mourn shall be comforted.” Let no one go away with the impression that the Gospel makes us take a gloomy view of the world and of life. It hinders us indeed from taking a superficial view, and finding a vain transitory joy in what we see; but it forbids our immediate enjoyment, only to grant enjoyment in truth and fulness afterwards. It only forbids us to begin with enjoyment. It only says, If you begin with pleasure, you will end with pain. It bids us begin with the Cross of Christ, and in that Cross we shall at first find sorrow, but in a while peace and comfort will rise out of that sorrow. That Cross will lead us to mourning, repentance, humiliation, prayer, fasting; we shall sorrow for our sins, we shall sorrow with Christ’s sufferings; but all this sorrow will only issue, nay, will be undergone in a happiness far greater than the enjoyment which the world gives,—though careless worldly minds indeed will not believe this, ridicule the notion of it, because they never have tasted it, and consider it a mere matter of words, which religious persons think it decent and proper to use, and try to believe themselves, and to get others to believe, but which no one really feels. This is what they think; but our Saviour said to His disciples, “Ye now therefore have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.” … “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” [John xvi. 22; xiv. 27.] And St. Paul says, “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” [1 Cor. ii. 9, 14.] And thus the Cross of Christ, as telling us of our redemption as well as of His sufferings, wounds us indeed, but so wounds as to heal also.

And thus, too, all that is bright and beautiful, even on the surface of this world, though it has no substance, and may not suitably be enjoyed for its own sake, yet is a figure and promise of that true joy which issues out of the Atonement. It is a promise beforehand of what is to be: it is a shadow, raising hope because the substance is to follow, but not to be rashly taken instead of the substance. And it is God’s usual mode of dealing with us, in mercy to send the shadow before the substance, that we may take comfort in what is to be, before it comes. Thus our Lord before His Passion rode into Jerusalem in triumph, with the multitudes crying Hosanna, and strewing His road with palm branches and their garments. This was but a vain and hollow pageant, nor did our Lord take pleasure in it. It was a shadow which stayed not, but flitted away. It could not be more than a shadow, for the Passion had not been undergone by which His true triumph was wrought out. He could not enter into His glory before He had first suffered. He could not take pleasure in this semblance of it, knowing that it was unreal. Yet that first shadowy triumph was the omen and presage of the true victory to come, when He had overcome the sharpness of death. And we commemorate this figurative triumph on the last Sunday in Lent, to cheer us in the sorrow of the week that follows, and to remind us of the true joy which comes with Easter-Day.

And so, too, as regards this world, with all its enjoyments, yet disappointments. Let us not trust it; let us not give our hearts to it; let us not begin with it. Let us begin with faith; let us begin with Christ; let us begin with His Cross and the humiliation to which it leads. Let us first be drawn to Him who is lifted up, that so He may, with Himself, freely give us all things. Let us “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” and then all those things of this world “will be added to us.” They alone are able truly to enjoy this world, who begin with the world unseen. They alone enjoy it, who have first abstained from it. They alone can truly feast, who have first fasted; they alone are able to use the world, who have learned not to abuse it; they alone inherit it, who take it as a shadow of the world to come, and who for that world to come relinquish it.

 

On the Coronation of the Coredemptrix

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Corredenzione, by Giovanni Gasparro. This painting convinced my heart of the doctrine of the Co-Redemption of Mary. (Source).

It is appropriate on this Feast of Our Lady’s Coronation and Everlasting Queenship that we contemplate the fleeting thrones of this lesser world. Let us commemorate the loss of two great English dynasties, fixed on this day by Providence.

On Aug. 22, 1485, His Majesty King Richard III was defeated on Bosworth Field by a usurper from the House of the Tudors. The Red Dragon of Wales eclipsed the White Rose of York; years later, T.S. Eliot would wear the flower every 22nd of August.

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The Personal Standard of Richard III. (Source).

On Aug. 22, 1642, His Majesty King Charles I raised the Royal Standard at Nottingham. This act has widely been considered the formal start of the English Civil War that would end in Puritan dictatorship, the slaughter of the Irish and Scots, and the martyrdom of the King himself for the doctrine of Episcopacy.

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The Royal Standard of the Stuarts, 1603-1649. (Source).

Consider the leaden weight of these crowns. Worn by men alternately noble and feeble, loyal and inconstant, heroic and fearful, they rot away with the passage of time. The gilt of their craft and the earthly acclaim of their subjects have gone the way of all flesh. Those crowns are memories, but even in memory they do not earn the glory and affection they once inspired. Their reputations are occulted with cumbersome connotations. Richard has been much maligned ever since his death, in part by no less a personage than Shakespeare himself. Charles, a more complicated figure, has been swallowed up by his role as the symbolic center of Tory anxieties and Whig acrimony for the better part of four centuries. More bitterly, both kings “Accept the constitution of silence/And are folded in a single party.” They have become an unimportant datum of historical trivia for most people, even in England.

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The Coronation of the Virgin, by the Limbourg Brothers. (Source)

How unlike those crowns is that won by Mary! She who was immaculately conceived and preserved from every stain of sin never sullies her crown by any failure of virtue. Having borne the Son of God in her womb, no other glory could ever outstrip what she has already known in her perpetually virginal maternity. Assumed into heaven, she is preserved from the terrible corruption of the grave. And now, as the Church celebrates the Octave Day of the Assumption, we contemplate the eternal joy which her coronation engenders in all the ranks of the blessed. All generations have called her blessed, and all will forevermore. She will never be reduced in the eyes of the world, because no one is more perfect in the eyes of God.

Has there ever been so marvelous a creature as Mary? Can we name, in the orderly chaos of the creation, a being more closely united to the Trinity? Who else among mere mortals has been lauded as “More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim?” In her burns the fire of charity; in her grows the ground of humility; in her flows the water of purity; in her soars the mighty wind of patience. She is the New and Sophianic Eve, in which the Wisdom of God is most clearly manifest.

And why? Because she is the threefold Mother of the Redeemer. First, by her Fiat, she assents to a physical maternity of the Word Incarnate. Second, by the sorrows of her Immaculate Heart at the Cross, she wins a sacramental maternity of Christ in the Eucharist. And third, by her prayer in the Cenacle on Pentecost, she gains a mystical maternity of Christ in the whole Church. This threefold motherhood is but one theandric maternityand thus we see the Trinitarian character of Our Lady’s co-redemption. She and she alone of all mankind is so favored and so bound to the work of Christ.

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Coronation of the Virgin, Enguerrand Quarton. 1454. (Source). Mary crowned by the Trinity is surely an icon of the Eschaton.

A friend of mine passed on this passage from St. Amadeus of Lausanne, a Cistercian most famous for his eight homilies in praise of the Mother of God. He took it from Universalis, which gives the full liturgy of the hours online. Thus, the Church particularly commends these words to us on this holy day:

Observe how fitting it was that even before her assumption the name of Mary shone forth wondrously throughout the world. Her fame spread everywhere even before she was raised above the heavens in her magnificence. Because of the honour due her Son, it was indeed fitting for the Virgin Mother to have first ruled upon earth and then be raised up to heaven in glory. It was fitting that her fame be spread in this world below, so that she might enter the heights of heaven on overwhelming blessedness. Just as she was borne from virtue to virtue by the Spirit of the Lord, she was transported from earthly renown to heavenly brightness.

So it was that she began to taste the fruits of her future reign while still in the flesh. At one moment she withdrew to God in ecstasy; at the next she would bend down to her neighbours with indescribable love. In heaven angels served her, while here on earth she was venerated by the service of men. Gabriel and the angels waited upon her in heaven. The virgin John, rejoicing that the Virgin Mother was entrusted to him at the cross, cared for her with the other apostles here below. The angels rejoiced to see their queen; the apostles rejoiced to see their lady, and both obeyed her with loving devotion.

the-coronation-of-the-virginCimaThe Coronation of the Virgin, Cima da Conegliano. (Source).

Dwelling in the loftiest citadel of virtue, like a sea of divine grace or an unfathomable source of love that has everywhere overflowed its banks, she poured forth her bountiful waters on trusting and thirsting souls. Able to preserve both flesh and spirit from death she bestowed health-giving salve on bodies and souls. Has anyone ever come away from her troubled or saddened or ignorant of the heavenly mysteries? Who has not returned to everyday life gladdened and joyful because his request had been granted by the Mother of God?

She is a bride, so gentle and affectionate, and the mother of the only true bridegroom. In her abundant goodness she has channelled the spring of reason’s garden, the well of living and life-giving waters that pour forth in a rushing stream from divine Lebanon and flow down from Mount Zion until they surround the shores of every far-flung nation. With divine assistance she has redirected these waters and made them into streams of peace and pools of grace. Therefore, when the Virgin of virgins was led forth by God and her Son, the King of kings, amid the company of exulting angels and rejoicing archangels, with the heavens ringing with praise, the prophecy of the psalmist was fulfilled, in which he said to the Lord: At your right hand stands the queen, clothed in gold of Ophir.

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An illustration of “The Woman Clothed With the Sun.” (Source)

St. Amadeus is right; “Has anyone ever come away from her troubled or saddened or ignorant of the heavenly mysteries? Who has not returned to everyday life gladdened and joyful because his request had been granted by the Mother of God?” We who still struggle with sin on the path to beatitude cannot hope to achieve our goal if we will not be with and like Mary. We, too, are promised crowns. The scriptures mention five: the imperishable crown (1 Cor. 5:24-25), the crown of rejoicing (1 Thess. 2:19), the crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8), the crown of glory (1 Pet. 5:4), and the crown of life (Rev. 2:10). Our Lady wears all these and seven more, for she is the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev. 12:1 KJV). Are these other seven stars the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, her spouse? Or the seven cardinal virtues? Or the seven sacraments that constitute the Church? Or the seven lesser ranks of the angels in praise of their queen? Impossible to say. Mary is not only the fountain of all holiness, but the mother of the Church’s deepest mysteries.

How might I end this praise of Our Lady that could properly continue ad infinitum? By returning to those lesser crowns with which I began.

Earthly splendor is no great thing. It can only be built on sufferingeither our own or that of others. Even when turned to good (as, I would argue, Charles I attempted to use his power), it reflects something of our fallen state. It is slippery, contingent, and as mortal as we are. But the glory of heaven is without end. Incorrupt and incorruptible, it abides in the gaze of the Father. Mary, above all creation, receives this kind of glory. She, the New Eve to the New Adam, mirrors Him in all things. Let us run after the course she trod before us, the course of Her Son’s redemption! Only by pursuing a life like Christ’s can we hope for a reward like Mary’s.

May she pray for us as we celebrate her feast today.

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“Coronation of the Virgin,” Fra Angelico. (Source). The Blessed Angelico returned to this subject throughout his career, but this version, hanging in the Uffizi Gallery, is my favorite.

Baronius on Religious Writing

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Portrait of Cesar Cardinal Baronius. (Source)

In a recent post, I quoted a letter sent by de Marquais, Abbot of St. Martin’s, to Cesar Baronius about humility and trust in the Providence of God whenever our work seems discouraging. The source I used, the Mediatrix Press edition of Lady Amabel Kerr’s biography of Baronius, has been a great read thus far. In the same chapter, I also found this excellent passage from the Annals, presumably also translated by Lady Kerr herself. She takes it from the dedication of the sixth volume of the Annals.

“No man, however distinguished in intellect or excellent in virtue, is sufficient of himself to handle sacred things. This is clearly demonstrated in Scripture by the example of that artificer who, though employed on only the mechanical structure of the place wherein God was to be worshipped, was declared by Moses to be thereby specially united to divine things. ‘The Lord has filled Bezaleel with the Spirit of God,’ said he, ‘with wisdom and understanding and knowledge and learning, and to work in gold, silver and brass, and in engraving stones and in carpenter’s work. Whatever can be devised artificially He hath given his hand.’ Yet Moses adds that even this work, so well done by aid of the Holy Spirit, was not to be used for God until it had been blessed. If then he who handled only the materials intended for the future service of God had to be himself given to God, how much more is expected of him on whom falls the burden of expounding those things which belong to the truth of the Church. Without doubt he should be ever filled with the Spirit of truth, so that he may complete his work standing firm in the truth.” (qtd. in Kerr 156-57)

As someone who hopes to someday write actual theology, I find these words both challenging and profound. I love the idea that a book can be a kind of little Tabernacle. I hope to carry out my own workacademic, creative, and whatever I can throw up on this blogin just such a spirit.

Too often, it seems that contemporary theologians treat their field as part of the Humanities rather than Divinity. They are overly concerned with political questions, or theories of signification and interpretation, or some such narrow province. On the other hand, some would go too far and forget the other side of the truth that Baronius expounds through his metaphor. The theologian, like Bezaleel, prepares a human work fit for a divine dwelling, but it is indeed a human work. It should speak a human language.

The proper posture, I think, is somewhere between the two. In other words—theologians must remember that their vocation, like all vocations, is theandric. The Sophiological Renaissance led by Michael Martin and the other folks over at Jesus: The Imagination seems to be a good example of that balance applied to actual religious writing. So is the deeply Eucharistic monastic theology of Dom Mark Daniel Kirby. In both of these (very different) cases, the writers achieve the divinity-humanity balance in their theology by hewing close to the sacraments and the sacramental worldview. As Sergius Bulgakov said, “one should imbibe theology from the bottom of the Eucharistic Chalice.”

I like to think that Cardinal Baronius might agree.

The Polyphony of Paul Jernberg

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The Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome. (Source).

What a delectable treat it is to discover a composer of sacred music who really manages to capture something of the transcendent in his liturgical settings. Having just come across the work of Paul Jernberg, I must say that I am gobsmacked. Really. With his Mass of St. Philip Neri, Jernberg has done for the Latin Rite what Roman Hurko accomplished for the Ukrainians with his Liturgy No. 3. Finally, we have a modern polyphonic Mass setting that evokes the eternal, delights the senses, and inspires the heart with a sense of God’s glory. And in English!

I am sure that those more in the loop of liturgical news will be well aware of this recording from 2014, but it came to me as a revelation. My guess is that most Catholics are probably unaware that a musical setting this rich, hieratic, and flat-out beautiful has come to be in recent years. And no doubt, those with Oratorian connections and interests will also appreciate the particular Mass that Jernberg chose.

Do take some time to listen to the Gloria, the Kyrie, the Alleluia, the Eucharistic Ordinary, the Sanctus, and the various other excerpts provided on Jernberg’s own website. You won’t regret it.

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What a feat. (Source).

A Corpus Christi Meditation

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Transustanziazione,” by Giovanni Gasparro. He’s one of the best Catholic artists working today.

In my parish, as in most, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi has been moved from its traditional spot on the Thursday after Trinity to the following Sunday. There are many unfortunate implications of this liturgical change, but today I’d rather focus on what grace I received from the readings and prayers of today’s Ferial Mass.

I’d like to start, however, with a painting, “Transustanziazione,” by Giovanni Gasparro. Only in the work of Salvador Dali do we find a modern artist who captures the mystical dimension of the Eucharist in such an original way. And Gasparro’s piece is far simpler, and therefore more visually striking, than any of Dali’s several Eucharistic paintings.

Three pairs of hands, like the three pairs of wings on the seraphim and cherubim, bear aloft a bleeding host in undifferentiated space. The three sets of hands appear the samethey are, perhaps, the hands of the same priest captured over the lapse of time. This distortion of time and space lends the image a sense of eternity. We are viewing something transcendent. The Eucharist is not just an earthly event. It is also a rite which happens forever in the cosmic liturgy of heaven. And who is the Great High Priest offering that liturgy for us mortals? Who but Christ? In Gasparro’s image, Christ is present as priest and victim.

The three pairs of hands also remind us of the Trinity. When we approach the Eucharist, we truly approach the Triune God. At every Mass, the act of Transubstantiation only happens because of the work of the whole Trinity. Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit, through the hands of His priests and the prayer of His bride, the Church. It is meet and right that we should consider the painting at this point between the Ordinary Form celebrations of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi.

The painting has a certain sacramentality, in that, like the liturgy, it captures something of the invisible and manifests it to our earthbound senses. Looking at Gasparro’s painting, we have the sense that we are glimpsing something profound, unsettling, and sacredsomething ordinarily hidden from us. Do we not hear the words of St. Thomas’s Corpus Christi hymn, Lauda Sion?

Here beneath these signs are hidden,
Priceless things, to sense forbidden,
Signs, not things, are all we see.

Today’s liturgy powerfully brings this quality to mind. As we turn to the First Reading from today’s Mass, we encounter the words of St. Paul:

Brothers and sisters: To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over the hearts of the children of Israel, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Therefore, since we have this ministry through the mercy shown us, we are not discouraged. And even though our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they may not see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus. For God who said, Let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ.

This, from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians.

The Liturgical Providence of God permits us to hear these words of the Apostle on a day which, in the Old Calendar, was the preeminent feast of the Eucharist as such. All Thursdays are to be read in light of the Eucharist, mystically tied as they are to this holy feast and to Maundy Thursday.

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Russian icon of The Holy Face of Jesus “Not-Made-by-Hands”(Source).

St. Paul is doing many things in this passage. It is an extremely rich vein of mystical insight, and it could yield untold spiritual fruit. But one very clear move that St. Paul makes here is the parallel he draws between our faces and the face of Christ. As the Spirit has removed the veil of sin from our faces in Baptism, so too, He removes the veil from Christ’s priestly face in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the Baptized stand face-to-face with God Almighty. We must grow in the likeness of Christ’s Holy Face—”from glory to glory”—but only by approaching the glory of that face in the Eucharist.

What does this transformation practically look like? The readings give us hints.

The Gospel Acclamation, drawn from St. John, summarizes the commands of the Lord in the proper Gospel. We sing, “I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you.” Then, Christ tells us,

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Eucharistic community is characterized by peace. Its members govern their actions by deliberate and conscientious love. We are obliged to strive for this peace.

The proper Psalm depicts the spiritual condition of that moral environment, when

Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.

What, precisely, is the nature of this union of heaven and earth? Here, too, the Psalm furnishes a deeper insight. We sing in the refrain, “The glory of the Lord will dwell in our land.” There are many meanings bound up in this line of Holy Scripture. Three are immediately relevant to our purposes. The passage’s Sophiological meaning is that God’s glory will ultimately interpenetrate, indwell, and crown the redeemed cosmos. The passage’s Mariological meaning is that Christ will give His own divine-human self to the Church, the New Israel, through the Church’s perfect microcosm and icon, Mary, the true Daughter of Zion.

But the passage also has a Eucharistic meaning. There is a reason we are meant to chant this particular line of the Psalter on the Thursday that was (and at some level, still is) Corpus Christi. The Glory of God will dwell in the land by its fruits—bread and wine. Indeed, the Glory of God will so fill the bread and wine that they will cease to be bread and wine. God will pour out his glory upon our offerings until our “cup runneth over.” They may appear all the same to us, but in truth, they will become the Body and Blood of Christ. No part of their original essence will remain. This single act of outpouring and indwelling is God’s privileged path of union with souls and with all creation.

As the great theologian Jean Daniélou writes, “We have already seen the Eucharist as communion, covenant. Now we see it as presence, shekinah.” It is the same presence that animates the entire liturgy of the Ferial Thursday after Trinity and that hides quietly in the simple and sacramental art of Giovanni Gasparro.

Benedict Shrugged

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“Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang…”—Shakespeare, Sonnet LXXIII. (Source).

For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
(Matt. 25: 14-30 KJV).

“There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged 1054).

In every age, the relationship of the Church and the world is a fraught issue. The particular vicissitudes of politics, society, and spirituality always bring up new challenges for the Body of Christ in hac lacrimarum valle. Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, recently released by Sentinel, is a contribution to the question as we must face it in our own time. Dreher says in the book that he hopes to “sound the alarm for conservative Christians in the West,” so that they can survive “the greatest danger” of our age, “the liberal secular order itself” (The Benedict Option 236). He envisions Christians forming counter-cultural communities to sustain the life of the Faith through “modern repaganization” (197).

Insofar as Dreher wanted to start a conversation, the book is a smashing success. It has been praised and pilloried in the Christian blogosphere and beyond. Over the course of the last three and a half years, Dreher has even inspired rival “options” such as Chad Pecknold’s Dominican Option, Michael Martin’s Sophia Option, John Mark Reynolds’s Constantine Project, Dr. Carrie Gress’s Marian Option, and more. I may get into some of those reactions over the course of this essay. What I will not do is make much reference to Dreher’s authorial meddling, including his obsessive and often highly vindictive reactions to reviews he dislikes. It is enough to acknowledge that Dreher is partaking of the conversation he wanted to start. Considered solely as a social phenomenon, the Benedict Option has succeeded at beginning those important conversations about the Church’s place in the (post)modern west.

But books cannot be reduced to the conversations they inspire. They are texts, and eventually we need to evaluate them as texts. Under that demand, the record is much murkier. There are many good things about The Benedict Option, but also many bad things. Throughout, the book’s noble aspirations are frustrated by poor style, errors of content, and a palpable, hand-wringing fear.

In the interest of charity, however, I’ll begin with a few of the positives.

Dreher is concerned with the right problems: individualism, hedonism, consumerism, liberalism, secularism, relativism, etc. In short, the toxic cocktail of capitalist modernity. Of course, Dreher hardly bothers to point out that these issues are intimately bound up with the economic system as such. But I digress.

Dreher follows upon greater scholars like, inter alia, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. There has been some controversy over Dreher’s reading of MacIntyre, but ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. Dreher was inspired by a line in After Virtue and came up with his own project (sorta…Gabriel Sanchez, among others, rightly points out that Dreher’s vision isn’t all that original anyway). So be it. The fact remains that, insofar as the book is a polemic, Dreher is aiming at the right kinds of cultural forces. It also helps that Dreher specifically limits his scope to the West. Any attempt to integrate the cultural experience of Christians in, say, Sub-Saharan Africa or the Far East would no doubt lead to an extremely different set of conclusions than those which Dreher has offered. His command of social science and ethnographic work (if not historiography) about our own situation is impressive.

Moreover, Dreher is right to mine the wisdom of the monastic tradition. Monasticism, where rightly practiced, stands as a sign of contradiction to the world’s banality, vices, and distractions. He attempts to draw something like a social doctrine out of the Rule of St. Benedict, a project I’ve long thought might be worthwhile if attempted with more systematic rigor. Dreher writes, “Because it dictates how Benedictine virtues are to be lived by monastic communities, the Rule is political” even while he recognizes that “The telos…of a monastic life is not the same as the telos of life in a secular state” (The Benedict Option 88). His Third Chapter, describing the life and spirituality of the Monks of Norcia, is a loving testament to this inspiring young order. Dreher also advocates for Christian families to turn their homes into “domestic monaster[ies]” and attempt a genuine ascetic life (124-26). In fact, his overriding goalto bring up the next generation as faithful Christians, and thereby preserve Christianity as suchis an indisputably admirable one.

I might add that some of his thoughts on education are sensible. While I’m more skeptical than Dreher is when it comes to Classical Education, and the canon of Great Books in particular, I think the model works best at the pre-collegiate levels he imagines. I also don’t think he’s right to totally write off secular academe, but I know from the experience of friends that the academy can be a sometimes unjustly punishing place for practicing Christians. My own view is that this places an even greater urgency on Christians to contribute to intellectual life in America inside the universities, wherever and whenever possible. Rowan Williams is right to point out that

The Benedict Option…confronts the prevailing consensus about how far the majority is willing to make room for principled dissent and public argument – yet at the same time shows a rather dispiriting lack of confidence in public argument.

I can understand why Dreher and his allies don’t have high hopes for America’s educational system, but I also think surrendering our place in the universities would be a disastrously bad idea. I’ll get into that in my follow-up to this review, when I hope to put forward some of my own suggestions.

Dreher also includes a really great, extended shout-out to the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville. Having spent the better part of my Sunday afternoons at “the Stud” for meetings of the G.K. Chesterton Society, I can vouch for its excellence. I have friends who have lived there, and it’s done wonders for their personal faith lives. In fact, I first saw Dreher speak at the Stud, when he visited in February (or was it January?) of 2016. He wasn’t half bad, either. The room was packed, and he gave a pretty good pitch for what he was, even then, calling “the Benedict Option.”

But I also remember a niggling doubt about the whole thing, which I couldn’t quite identify, much less express, at that early stage. Now, having read the book, I feel more confident in my objectionsbut once again, I digress. I wanted to start off with the praiseworthy parts of the book.

NorciaMonks

The Benedictine monks of Norcia, one of the greatest religious families in the Church today. I had occasion to hear their spiritual father and founder, Dom Cassian Folsom, say Mass at my fist parish, St. Brigid’s in Johns Creek, Georgia. I believe I was even blessed by him at Communion, since he came before I was received. A genuine saint. (Source).

Dreher’s “anti-politics” are timely and wise. He makes good use of the examples left to us by Czech dissidents during the Communist years. While I have a few qualms about some of his proposalssuch as his insistence that Christians focus all of their energy on Religious Liberty activism and legislation—I share his disillusionment with the organized forces of both right and left.

I also commend him on his total disdain for Donald Trump. Dreher writes,

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Trumpolatry. Unless you read it, as I do, as Jesus telling Trump to resign. (Source).

Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional. He is not a solution to the problem of America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it. (The Benedict Option 79).

Amen. As someone who did not vote for Donald Trump and hopes never to do so, I acclaim Dreher for putting those words in print. Too many Conservatives who once thought much more clearly about the morals of their leaders have since bowed and done homage to the Golden-Coiffed Calf.

There were other positive moments. The whole idea of reinforcing Christian community in the face of cultural and political opposition is a worthy goaland a surprisingly risky one at that. Any communitarian project is necessarily fraught with certain dangers, particularly in a world already defined by stark social divisions across race, class, and other categories. As I read, I was repeatedly and pleasantly surprised by objections Dreher headed off at the proverbial pass. He hopes that Benedict Option communities can come together across ethnic and racial divides, and he recognizes the dangerous tendencies of tight-knit communities to become closed, coercive, and cultish (81, 138-143). He also gives a few really great examples from the Mormon experience (132, 34-35). While Dreher doesn’t provide any practical advice for, say, Benedict Option parents whose children come out to them as gay or lesbian, one gets the sense that he’s not in favor of shunning, shaming, and disinheritence. Which is sensible.

(And yes, I realize that as an Amish Catholic, I ought to be in favor of shunning generally. Like Whitman, “I contain multitudes”).

I think his chapter on sexual ethics is probably one of the more sensible passages of the book. The very day that I finished the chapter, I came across this article on the possibility of a new liturgy to mark gender transitions (possibly even rebaptism) in the C of E. When Dreher says that sexual teaching is a lot closer to the heart of the faith than liberals might claim, he’s not wrong.

Finally, I’ll say that he’s right to pin his hopes on beauty. Building on Joseph Ratzinger and Matthew Crawford, Dreher writes,

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That’s enough, David A.R. White. (Source)

…the most effective way to evangelize is by helping people experience beauty and goodness. From that starting point, we help them to grasp the truth that all goodness and beauty emerge from the eternal God, who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. For Christians, this might mean witnessing to others through music, theater, or some other form of art [if only they could produce something that isn’t deeply, obnoxiously cringey, but that’s not a problem  worth getting into here]. Mostly, though, it will mean showing love to others through building and sustaining genuine friendships and through the example of service to the poor, the weak, and the hungry. (The Benedict Option 119).

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Christian art done well: The Young Pope. (Source).

There are hardly any words in the book which earn my stronger approbation. Dreher is simply correct when he argues that we should “[do] activities that are pleasurable, not merely dutiful” (142). Indeed.

Pether, Sebastian, 1790-1844; Moonlit Lake with a Ruined Gothic Church, a Church and Boatmen

“Moonlit Lake with a Ruined Gothic Church, a Church and a Boatmen.” Sebastian Pether. (Source).

In spite of all these positives, I remain a BenOp skeptic. The book is rather flimsy, riddled with numerous problems. Dreher’s style never manages to break free of the chatty and occasionally shrill blogger’s voice that marks his online fare. Yet it lacks much of the humor that characterizes so much of what he writes at The American Conservative. I could overlook that sin, however, if his content were not similarly flawed. Dreher is dangerously allergic to the one thing that can save his text from its inner contradictions: nuance.

That failure colors every chapter in the book to a greater or lesser degree.

Religion is a famously thorny and multilayered subject. A religious writer aiming at the popular market can be forgiven for simplifying complex ideas to reach a broad audience. But Dreher’s approach veers away from educational simplicity and into outright reductionism.

For the sake of brevity, however, I will only get into the three very specific problems that I found most troubling to Dreher’s project and the quality of his text.

Bad Historiography

First, a somewhat pedantic point.

Dreher’s lack of nuance is most egregious in his historical narrative, given fully in chapter two and sporadically throughout other parts of the book. He argues that the Middle Ages were a time of order and devotion, in which European Christians believed in objective truths under the happy aegis of Scholastic Realism. Everyone had their place, and everyone knew the essential truths of salvation under God’s cosmic rule. Into this pastoral capriccio storms the wicked Nominalists, led by William of Ockham (1285-1347). By suggesting that universals were not real, but merely notional, the Nominalists inadvertently led to the centuries-long collapse of the sacramental worldview and all of Christendom with it.

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William of Ockham, the great bogeyman of Dreher’s historical narrative. (Source).

Then came the Reformation, which is bad because it “destroyed…unity and stripped those under its sway of many symbols, rituals, and concepts that had structured the inner lives of Christians” (32). Admittedly, Dreher never mentions anything about the deficient theologies of the Reformers, nor the historical fact that Christendom had been divided since 1054 and, even before that, the Council of Chalcedon—but more on that point later.

Dreher then leads us along a whirlwind tour of Western intellectual history, leaping from one period to another with unsupported assumptions of causality. He cursorily mentions political developments such as the Wars of Religion, the American and French Revolutions, and the World Wars. Interestingly enough, he never discusses Imperialism, Colonialism, Anglo-American efforts to end slavery, or the Holocaustyet surely all of these phenomena had a significant impact on the construction of Western religion and subjectivity.

Eventually, the reader lands in the desiccated and desecrated landscape of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity,” our own godless world, still reeling from the Sexual Revolution.

Put another way, it’s Richard Weaver warmed over, history stripped of everything but ideas and spilled blood. There are a few problems with this approach.

First, it totally fails to account for the complexity of actual history. Even an intellectual historian doesn’t just deal with ideas as such. Ideas don’t float in the ether; they don’t make their way from one thinker to another by force of osmosis. They are transmitted via books, and through those books, to different communities of readers. Intellectual history is ultimately incomplete without its companion sciences: reception history, textual history, history of the book, economic history, political history, art history, and a tremendous dollop of cultural history. Not all of these need to be present in a given textand certainly not in a book aimed at the popular market!

But we oughtn’t let Dreher off the hook so easily.

Dreher knows that “Ideas don’t occur in a vacuum,” but his slovenly method leads to dubious lineages of causality (28). Without providing a shred of evidence, Dreher boldly asserts that “Most leaders of the Scientific Revolution were professing Christians, but the revolution’s grounding lay undeniably in nominalism” (33). What were they reading? Was the consensus among scholastic metaphysicians noticeably more nominalist in the 17th century than in prior years? Does that consensus cover all of Europe, or just certain important cultural centers? And if so, why should we believe that said consensus applied to the work of natural philosophers?

Or take another example: “[The term ‘Renaissance’] contains within it the secular progressive belief that the religiously focused medieval period was a time of intellectual and artistic sterilitya ludicrous judgment but an influential one” (emphasis mine, 30). Dreher does nothing to justify this assertion. Almost none of what he has told us up to this point suggests that he’s right. We read nothing about Medieval art or literature. We’ve only learned about the disputes of the Scholastics on a very particular question (no pun intended) and heard how great most people’s worldview was at that time.

Pieter_Brueghel_the_Elder_-_The_Dutch_Proverbs_-_Google_Art_Project

Dreher doesn’t take account of the complexities of Medieval life. (Source).

And let’s take a look at that alleged worldview. In a paragraph which (correctly!) begins, “Medieval Europe was no Christian utopia,” Dreher then goes on to write that, “despite the radical brokenness of their world, medievals carried within their imagination a powerful vision of integration. In the medieval consensus, men construed reality in a way that empowered them to harmonize everything conceptually and find meaning amid the chaos” (25). Who exactly are these “medievals?” Just the scholars who sparred in Paris and Oxford, or the nobility, or the knights, or the bishops, or the monastics, or the vast and often perverse majority of illiterate peasants? And which culture? Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Angevins, Normans, Iberians, or the denizens of any of the myriad German or Italian or Celtic fiefdoms? How far West is he spreading his view? Do the Slavs count? And what centuries does he want us to look at? He’s working with an almost thousand year span from St. Benedict to the dastardly Nominalists. If, in fact, the worldview of that Christian civilization was immutable and homogeneous throughout such a wide variety of time and societies, then doesn’t that feed the very criticism that Dreher so stridently rejects, that the Middle Ages were a “time of intellectual and artistic sterility?” (30).

This point matters, insofar as Dreher elevates (read, “romanticizes”) the Medieval Era as his cultural ideal. The Benedict Option is nothing if not a way of thinking about community. So, which community? What are its limits?

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The enforcement of Christendom’s social boundaries; the burning of Jews. (Source).

Case in point: what about the Jews? Certainly, they were thought to interrupt that “powerful vision of integration,” which emphatically never included them. Dreher periodically returns to Modern Orthodox Jews as a great example of community-building in the face of modernity (and is right to do so). He goes so far as to call them “our…elder brothers in the faith” (124).

But his praise sits uneasily with his historiography. Only twice does he come close to acknowledging that their survivalindeed, the survival of Judaism as a wholehappened not because of, but in spite of, the Age of Faith. It is not sufficient to recognize that the Jews “have faced horrifying attempts over millennia to destroy their families and communities” (124). We must be clear that, at least in the Medieval era, the chief persecutor was precisely the Christian order that Dreher takes as his model. The one time Dreher does, in fact, mention that it’s Christian persecution, he only does so to discuss how the Jews were forced into the moneylending business. Here then is another historical difficulty that Dreher fails to adequately acknowledge or reconcile with his greater narrative.

Of course, Dreher doesn’t need to answer all of these questions, since he’s not writing an academic history of how modernityor more properly, modernitiesemerged. My point is precisely that, due to the constraints of his form and audience, his historical narrative is naturally going to paper over important, substantive nuances. And those nuances are where the truth is to be found. A project so heavily predicated on a particular way of understanding our historical moment at least ought to get its history right.

As a side-note, I’ll add that Dreher also stakes his claim pretty heavily on readers accepting his comparison of our own age to the advent of the Dark Ages (hence the whole St. Benedict thing). That’s a comparison I’m not willing to make. If anything, our times more closely resemble early modernitya point I hope to explain more fully in my follow-up to this article. Suffice to say, Sam Rocha is correct to point out that Dreher’s view of the Middle Ages is, at best, incoherent:

On the one hand, he sees the Middle Ages as the period that required a radical retreat in the face of the fall of Rome. On the other hand, he sees the Middle Ages as a period of enchantment and deep faith. These two stories are both vastly oversimplified, but they are quite off when they are both said to be true simultaneously. How can it be the case that when Rome fell the Benedictines endured the Middle Ages guided by their Rule and, also, that the fall of Christianity happened, like Rome, after the end of the Middle Ages? Anyone can see that this story makes no sense logically. Historically, it makes even less sense.

I’m not suggesting that Dreher is necessarily wrong in his various judgments. He may well be correct in accusing the nominalists of a kind of cultural deicide (although it overlooks the Christian nominalist tendency, closely tied to empiricism, that numbers Berkeley, Burke, Hamann, Newman, and Chesterton among its ranks). Greater thinkers than him have made a similar claim. But as written, I have no reason to believe Dreher’s  intellectual history. He has made a defensible claim, and subsequently decided not to defend it. He has not shown his readers the courtesy of providing evidence.

Dreher’s citations are woefully inadequate. He makes some use of MacIntyre and Taylor, who are smart, respectable philosophers. But they are not historians. To his credit, he does draw upon C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image, David Bentley Hart (although it’s his religious philosophy and not his church historical work) and Brad Gregory, an honest-to-God historian working with an honest-to-God historical method. But he incorporates Gregory to make a point that’s barely substantive, that different ideas about Christianity led to different ways of living out Christianity. Did we really need the authority of an historian to make a point that is already so blindingly obvious? Moreover, all of these citations come in the first two parts of his history: the Middle Ages and the Renaissance/Reformation. But whither Eamon Duffy? Whither Richard Rex? Whither Alexandra Walsham?

If Dreher generally fetishizes the Middle Ages, he commits the opposite sin in his treatment of modernity. He sees only the negative. Dreher’s readers would be forgiven for forgetting that, in fact, the Church has endured and ameliorated the conditions of modern life for 500 years, and that it has given the world innumerable saints during that time. Leaving aside Church history, I’ve already mentioned that Dreher omits the various emancipatory struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries. Why? Perhaps because it troubles his claim that we have arrived at a uniquely bad moment for the Church, a time in which there is essentially nothing to be gained from the culture at large.

Here, too, he lacks nuance or evidence. See his description of Freud:

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, found his true genius not as a scientist but as a quasi-religious figure who discerned and proclaimed the Self as a deity to replace the Christian religion. (41).

This is a huge interpretive move that Dreher never justifies. At all. He just asserts it as if it’s fact, not a highly contextual evaluation of a complicated historical figure whose legacy has been very mixed. None of the two paragraphs that follow even mention any of Freud’s writings.

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Transhumanism gets no mention in The Benedict Option. (Source)

Dreher’s view of modern technology is equally dim. Here, the problem is not that he’s overly negative, but that he’s misplaced that negativity. The book closes with an oddly stunted chapter that launches an hysterical criticism of smartphones, social media, and the Internet as such without ever bothering to mention transhumanism, AI, automation, or any of the other very possible threats looming on the horizon. Nor does he devote any space to environmental concerns. Here, too, Dreher’s failure to provide proper nuance or evidence leads to sentences like this: “The seed that was planted in the fourteenth century with the triumph of nominalism reaches its full ripeness in Technological Man” (223). Or, later, “The most radical, disruptive, and transformative technology ever created is the Internet” (224). Besides providing zero historical evidence to support either of these statements, Dreher couples his paragraphs of hysteria with passages like this:

And guess what? It’s wonderful. It has made my life better in more ways than I can count, including making it possible for me to live where I want to live because I can work from home. The Internet has given me a great deal and does every day. (224).

The effect achieved is stylistic and tonal whiplash, not thoughtful nuance.

I mentioned earlier that this criticism is somewhat pedantic. I own that. But I do think it matters. Dreher stakes his project on an historical claim about our own times. He wants to persuade us of his project’s urgency by telling a story about Christianity in the West. Failing to provide much evidence and ignoring the essential complexity of nuances means that his narrative just doesn’t come off as all that convincing.

Bad Theology

Enough of the historical criticism. The book’s deeper problem lies in its spiritual and theological defects.

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The ruins of Whitby Abbey. (Source).

There are a few minor theological problems, such as his lamentable claim that the Rule of St. Benedict is “simply a training manual. Modern readers who turn to it looking for mystical teaching of fathomless spiritual depth will be disappointed” (15). While I would hate to presume, I think that statement would probably shock someone like Dom Mark Daniel Kirby, whose own commentaries on the Rule have brought out a rich mystical dimension in the text (see this example, in which he draws upon even more commentators who have done precisely what Dreher denies is possible for the “modern reader”). Ultimately, an error like this is forgivable. If it was the only one in the book, I’d be happy to overlook it.

Alas, there are more fatal problems.

Dreher takes a deeply ecumenical approach in The Benedict Option. By itself, this isn’t an issue. Insofar as his book can serve as an ethnography of American conservative Christianity, it’s probably a good idea. Practically, ecumenism can be helpful when it works towards the bridging of boundaries for strategic, intellectual, or conciliatory ends. Groups like my own aforementioned G.K. Chesterton Society or Dreher’s Eighth Day Books are doing small-scale, fellowship-based ecumenism well (136-37). Chuck Colson and Father Richard John Neuhaus modeled political ecumenism in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, much to the ire of fundamentalists. Similarly, intellectual fora for cross-traditional encounter can be especially productive. Journals like First Things do an excellent job facilitating that kind of positive ecumenism.

But ecumenism that ignores critical, substantive, or normative differences can be dangerous. The churches are separate for important reasons, and the stories and arguments they use to justify those differences are not to be taken lightly. For Dreher’s ostensible project, these differences ought to be of paramount importance. One cannot cooperate with someone to preserve a shared value when laboring under a false unity. Moreover, each ecclesial community will, of necessity, have a different response to the conditions of (post)modernity. They will have to draw upon their own unique resources and traditions. Their strategies will vary based on what they understand the Church to be. We can all agree that the Churchunderstood correctlyhas its own paramount mission, the salvation and sanctification of souls. But our understandings of how the Church is meant to do that job could not be more different. Losing sight of the singularity and urgency of the Church’s salvific mission and character is the greatest danger of all ecumenical work.

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Icon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy, which commemorates the triumph of iconodulic Christianity over the heresy of iconoclasm (Source).

I had hoped to find an ecumenism of encounter in Dreher’s book. Sometimes, I did. When he’s at his journalistic and sociological best, he provides some great anecdotes and insights across all types of American conservative Christianity. Unfortunately, the text is also riddled with a false ecumenism.

Dreher is very fond of speaking of “small-o orthodox,” as if such a thing could ever be anything more than a notional, or, at best, a situational construct. Sam Rocha, once again, puts the point well:

A second confusion is Dreher’s abstraction of Christianity. The book uses Roman Catholic sources and characters, but also includes a smattering of Protestants and a few Orthodox. By the end of the book, Dreher begins to sound like he’s written a manifesto, calling his new order “Benedict Option Christians.” Earlier he calls these “Benedict Option Churches” and “Benedict Option believers.” Just what are these churches? And what are the tenets of this belief? The book itself, with no ecclesiastical authority whatsoever and no scholarly credibility to speak of? This is tremendously abstract because there is obviously a real Benedictine Order that follows the real Rule of St. Benedict, which includes a lay apostolate for people like Dreher.

Rocha doesn’t explore the issue in all of its implications, but he’s on the money.

Dreher signals early on that his ecclesiology is, frankly, heretical. Dreher hopes to speak for and to “faithful orthodox Christians—that is, theological conservatives within the three main branches of historic Christianity” (18, emphasis mine). What revealing diction. Dreher’s working model is essentially branch theory, the heretical idea that Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism are all equally valid expressions of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” founded by Christ. In fact, Dreher seems perfectly content to go beyond the Anglo-Catholics who were and are Branch Theory’s most staunch defenders. He is happy to lump in a much wider net of Protestants, including figures like, inter alia, the pastor of “a small fundamentalist church in Minnesota” (112). No Catholic can sign on to this ecclesiology.

If Dreher had merely intended to use the theory as a shorthand for “Christians who are doctrinally and culturally conservative,” then “Dissident Christians” is a much better moniker, one that Dreher should have used throughout the book. It’s brief, it’s political, and it captures the posture towards contemporary culture that animates his entire project. It’s also ecumenical in the right waysomething like the “Ecumenism of Blood” described by Pope Francis—and doesn’t lead to the confusion of important theological and ecclesiological distinctions. 

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John Henry Newman; Ex-Branch Theorist. (Source).

True, Dreher says “Christianity,” not “Church,” but there’s other evidence of his branch theorizing throughout the book. He includes a quote by Leah Libresco Sargeant that sums up the Benedict Option as “just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care” (142). What is this small-c church? What is it “supposed to be?” In the context of Dreher’s ecumenical approach, we cannot say with any degree of certainty. Or consider Dreher’s defense of Evangelicals adopting “traditional liturgies” (what could that possibly mean in such a context?) on pages 112-13, where he seems to suggest that Protestants can have “communion with the Lord in Word and Sacrament” while remaining Protestant (I leave aside the question of the “Dutch Touch,” which is its own kettle of fish) (112-13).

Now we are confronted with a much deeper problem. Ecclesiology is always inseparable from sacramentology.

The Benedict Option is insufficiently sacramental. The trouble begins early on. Take this line from chapter one:

[Moralistic Therapeutic Deism] has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends sufferingthe Way of the Crossas the pathway to God. (10-11).

What’s absent from this list? The sacraments, and above all, the Eucharist. Indeed, the Blessed Sacrament does not enter the text until page 24, in the second chapter, when Dreher describes the worldview of the Middle Ages; Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, however, goes unmentioned (24). Nor does the Mass appear in Dreher’s chapter-long profile of the Monks of Norcia. These monks gained fame in the Catholic world first and foremost by their loving devotion to the solemn celebration of the traditional Mass. Why would Dreher omit the most important feature of their common life?

The Eucharist hardly plays any role in the entire book except for an extended section in chapter five, where Dreher argues that “contemporary Christians” should “Recover Liturgy” (105). No argument from me there. Insofar as Dreher is working against the “strange fire” of light shows, projection screens, and a whole range of modern instruments from guitars to tambourines, he has my undivided sympathy. He also makes a good point about the need for reverence at the liturgy, even going so far as to state that

Jesus is just as present in the Eucharist at Our Lady of Pizza Hut as at St. Patrick’s. Chances are, though, that you had to work harder to conjure a sense of the true holiness of the mass in the suburban church than in the cathedral. (106).

What a refreshing dose of sacramental realism! Finally, on page 106, we hear the sweet truth that Christ is really present among us in the Sacrament of the Altar. A few pages later, he adds this exquisite paragraph:

The contemporary Reformed theologian Hans Boersma identifies the loss of sacramentality as the key reason why the modern church is falling apart. If there is no real participation in the eternalthat is, if we do not regard matter, and even time itself, as rooted firmly in God’s beingthen the life of the church can scarcely withstand the torrents of liquid modernity. (108).

That passage contains the germ of what should have been the book’s central thesis, that a return to reverent sacramentality, and to the Eucharistic Christ in particular, will be our salvation. Even from a (very well respected) Reformed theologian, this insight is nearer to the truth than a good quarter of the book.

Similarly, Dreher hits the right note when he says:

All worship is in some sense liturgical, but liturgies that are sacramental both reflect Christ’s presence in the divine order and embody it in a concrete form accessible to worshipers. (108).

Bravo! If he had kept on sounding this note through to the end of the chapter, I would have applauded the whole way. Instead, he continues:

Liturgy is not magic, of course, but if it is intended and received sacramentally, it awakens the sense that worshipers are communing with the eternal, transcendent realm through the ritual and its elements. The liturgy feeds the sacramental imagination, reweaving the connection between body and spirit. (108).

The phrase “intended and received sacramentally” is a bit too vague for comfort. Who intends and receives the sacrament? By what authority do they intend and receive: the legitimate successors of the Apostles, or scripture alone? We see again the intimate connection between sacramentology and ecclesiology. Dreher’s words mean and imply very different things to Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant readers. His stylistic imprecision speaks to deeper theological vagaries.

What’s more, Dreher ought to know better. He has read Benedict XVI. He knows that “the Eucharist makes the Church.” One of the leading thinkers of his own communion, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, has built his entire career on the careful elucidation of a similarly Eucharistic ecclesiology. Theologians like the Armenian Orthodox Vigen Guroian and the Roman Catholic Bill Cavanaugh, though disagreeing in some important respects, nevertheless come together on this point. Their insights suggest that the very essence of the Church is bound up with the Eucharist. And if they are correct, it troubles Dreher’s entire approach to ecumenism and the liturgy.

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The Mass of St. Gregory. (Source).

Dreher includes unavoidably non-sacramental communities in his project in the name of ecumenism and (probably) book sales. After all, he goes so far as to state outright, “It is beyond the scope of this book to tell other Christians how they should celebrate their liturgies while still being faithful to their theological tradition,” even if that means omitting central dogmas of the Faith (112). So, what does Dreher do instead? He pivots to James K. A. Smith’s philosophy of “cultural liturgies,” an anthropologically useful concept. Dreher takes it up as his main way of selling liturgy to Evangelicals.

Unfortunately, in Dreher’s hands, the idea of “cultural liturgies” becomes a force for the very relativism he is attempting to combat (incidentally, Smith has since disavowed The Benedict Option). In Dreher’s telling, the liturgy is primarily a good thing because of what it does to us. While no serious Catholic or Orthodox theologian can deny that the liturgy is the preeminent means by which we are divinized, Dreher’s liturgical model is overly anthropocentric. It is—dare I say it?—strikingly emotivist and subjectivist. He places his emphasis on the way repetition and chanting and incense and community can orient our desires towards the life of transcendent order. Dreher instrumentalizes the Mass to an unhealthy degree. In a strikingly Maurassian note, he seems to think that “the form worship takes” matters primarily because it can “[build] a bulwark against” modernity (113). Once again, he writes that in a good liturgy, “worshipers are communing with the eternal, transcendent realm through the ritual and its elements” (108).

The reduction of the liturgy to quasi-Confucian social theurgy is a scandal. Nowhere do we read that, even if none but the priest were there, the Mass would still be the holiest and most important ceremony on earth. Nowhere do we read of Christ’s holy sacrifice made present in the Mass, nor of the way the liturgy opens up the eschaton to mere mortal worshipers. Nowhere do we even find the words “Real Presence,” itself originally a Lutheran formulation that has since gained ground among Catholics and Orthodox. There is no need to get overly academic with any of this. Much of it already fits well with the social science he is trying to use. But in failing to rise above his own anthropological method, Dreher likewise fails to do justice to his subject.

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The Marburg Colloquy, where Luther and Zwingli argued about the Eucharist and failed to come up with a Protestant consensus on the sacraments. Dreher is an accidental Zwinglian. (Source).

The result? Dreher protestantizes the Mass. But not in the way that Luther or Cranmer or even Calvin might, those men who thought well and hard about God’s work in our worship. Dreher aims lower. He writes, “liturgy is primarily, though not exclusively, about what God has to say to us” (108). To be precise, no, it is not. Liturgy is primarily about what God does to us through the Eucharist. We do not go to Mass just to learn, though that is one of its most important benefits. We go to Mass to offer the sacrifice of Christ and to receive God’s supernatural life in the Blessed Sacrament. Dreher’s pedagogical model is not wrong in itself, but without a robust sacramental realism, it devolves into Zwinglianism. Liturgy is a tool for preserving “cultural memory,” not a point of real contact with the Living and Ineffable God (109). Dreher writes, “Along with helping us remember Christ, liturgy also reminds us that Christianity isn’t just a philosophy but a way of life that demands everything” (109-10). Not wrong, just banal.

Dreher follows it up with, a few pages later, “We are supposed to feel that gathering in a church as a community to offer worship to our God is something set apart from ordinary life. This is what gives rich liturgies their power” (113). Did Dom Anthony Ruff ghost-write this passage? Christ the priest and victim is whator rather, whogives rich liturgies their power. The actions of the congregation are entirely secondary. That’s part of the reason that there are no rubrics for those hearing the Mass.

None of these problematic statements compare to a paragraph towards the end of his section on recovering liturgy:

Now, low-church Evangelicals are absolutely right to say that liturgy won’t save you. Only conversion of heart will. Liturgy is necessary for worship to do what it must do to fulfill its potential, but liturgy alone is not sufficient, for the same reason a Bach concerto performance means nothing to a deaf man. If a believer’s body is worshiping but his mind and body are elsewhere, what good does that do? The goal is to integrate all parts of the Christian person. It takes faith and reason to form and disciple a Christian. (113).

The first two sentences are perilously close to explicit heresy (specifically, Donatism). The Tradition of the undivided Church tells us that indeed we are saved by liturgy, because we are saved by the Eucharistic Christ’s cosmic and eternal liturgy. If Dreher meant that a mortal sinner cannot receive the sacrament without committing sacrilege, then he would be correct. But he doesn’t describe sin in the rest of the paragraph. He describes ordinary distractionvenially sinful at most. Dreher seems to suggest that our own disposition is more important than the objective work of the Trinity in the Sacrament. A great deal more precision would have been tremendously helpful.

I need not appeal to Catholic dogma to hold Dreher accountable for his shoddy sacramentology. Dreher, after all, is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. And by the standards of his own communion, Dreher’s book is very clearly heretical. It is impossible to imagine a serious Orthodox thinker endorsing any of the incoherent liturgical propositions that Dreher puts forward. We can also see the fissure between Dreher and his own tradition when it comes to his ecumenism.

st-mark-of-ephesus-3

There is a 100% certainty that this guy would anathematize Rod Dreher. But also me, so go figure. (Source).

The Orthodox are far more jealous of doctrinal purity than us Catholics. They are even canonically forbidden from praying with heretics. That protective tendency is one of their more admirable traits, although it has exerted a heavy pricethe nearly 1000-year schism that has separated the Christian East and West. Consider the words of Mark of Ephesus, who scuppered a scheme of reunion at the Council of Florence (AD 1438-45) by his outspoken criticism. Here are just a few of his ecumenical gems:

“The Latins are not only schismatics but heretics…we did not separate from them for any other reason other than the fact that they are heretics. This is precisely why we must not unite with them unless they dismiss the addition from the Creed filioque and confess the Creed as we do.”

“It is impossible to recall peace without dissolving the cause of the schism—the primacy of the Pope exalting himself equal to God.”

“The Symbol of the Faith must be preserved inviolate, as at its origin. Since all the holy doctors of the Church, all the Councils and all the Scriptures put us on our guard against heterodoxy, how dare I, in spite of these authorities, follow those who urge us to unity in a deceitful semblance of union—those who have corrupted the holy and divine Symbol of Faith and brought in the Son as second cause of the Holy Spirit.”

A model of Dreher-style ecumenical engagement, he is not. Consider a more recent example, such as the widely revered monks of Mount Athos. The recently canonized Elder Paisios, one of the Holy Mountain’s more famous residents of the late twentieth century, once said,

There’s no need for us to tell Christians who aren’t Orthodox that they’re going to hell or that they’re antichrists; but we also mustn’t tell them that they’ll be saved, because that’s giving them false reassurances, and we’ll be judged for it. We have to give them a good kind of uneasiness – we have to tell them that they’re in error.

And, along with most of the other monks on Mount Athos, Elder Paisios stopped remembering the Patriarch at the Divine Liturgy due to the latter’s perceived “dangerous overtures” to Rome.

That’s not to say that I agree with Mark of Ephesus, Elder Paisios, or the Athonites. I think all of them are dead wrong. My point in bringing them up is merely to note that Dreher’s approach looks mighty strange through the lens of his own tradition. Perhaps that’s why there are so few references to Eastern Orthodoxy, both in the sub-chapter on the liturgy and in the text more widely.

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Schemamonks. (Source).

Eastern Christian spirituality is full of riches. My own study of authors like Metropolitan John Zizioulas, Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov, and Vladimir Lossky was a major turning point in my theological and spiritual journey. I date the start of my conversion to my first encounter with iconography at an Orthodox monastery deep in Transylvania. I have repeatedly found the simple wisdom of the startsy a useful corrective to my own selfishness and pride. And the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is a truly beautiful act of the Apostolic Church at prayer.

The thing is, I suspect that Dreher would probably say much the same, too. But he doesn’t. With the exception of one reference to Father Alexander Schmemann quite late in the book, Dreher mostly brings up Eastern Orthodoxy in anecdotes describing his own faith journey. I found the absence of Eastern Orthodoxy in the book more broadly to be a particular disappointment. If there are faith communities that have dealt with cultural hostility, surely they are the Eastern churches. Observe the Greeks and Armenians under Ottoman and Turkish rule, or the Russians suffering the yoke of Communism. Why doesn’t he mention these examples? They seem directly pertinent to his project.

Dreher also explicitly references another Orthodox figure, one who proves that, at the end of the day, his ecumenical vision is just as incoherent as his historical narrative and his liturgical theology. On page 136, in chapter six, we read the following passage:

Times have changed, and so have some of the issues conservative Evangelicals and Catholics face. But the need for an ecumenism of the trenches is stronger than ever…To be sure, the different churches should not compromise their distinct doctrines, but they should nevertheless seize every opportunity to form friendships and strategic alliances in defense of the faith and the faithful. (136).

So far, so good. Here, Dreher is at his ecumenical best. He recognizes the strategic nature of ecumenism, doesn’t try to confound sacramentally distinct boundaries, and orients the reader towards positive cooperation. What a welcome volte-face from chapter five.

The problem, however, lies in that ellipsis. Because in between these two passages, Dreher inserts a toxic little sentence:

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a senior bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church, has on several occasions appealed to traditionalists in the West to form a “common front” against atheism and secularism. (136).

The sheer audacity.

With one sentence, Dreher undermines the actual goodwill that his muddled and misbegotten ecumenical effort might have borne out among informed Catholics. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev is one of the great persecutors of the Church today, a man who has repeatedly, mendaciously, and viciously attacked the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, even at the Vatican itself. His lies in the service of the Moscow Patriarchate’s power plays disqualify him as any kind of ecumenical model. Dreher knows this, has commented on it before, and yet still saw fit to include that sentence in the final draft of his book. I consider it the one truly unconscionable sentence in the entire text, and it makes all of his ecumenical platitudes ring hollow.

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Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokolamsk, implacable and perennial foe of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. (Source).

The Benedict Option inadvertently manages to present us with a model of ecumenism that, on the one hand, would be anathematized by the Hyperdox, and on the other, cites one of the most rhetorically violent Orthodox partisans in the official dialogue today. The result is an unsatisfactory and unsacramental chimera, a quasi-church, not the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Body of Christ.

Bad Ethos

My final criticism of Dreher is, I hope, both less pedantic and less denominational than my previous two points. I recognize that the issues I have brought up may not seem so terrible to those who a) aren’t Catholic or Orthodox, or b) don’t particularly know or care all that much about intellectual and church history. These are very specific criticisms that, I acknowledge, may run the risk of asking too much of a book written for the popular press.

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The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey. (Source).

But there is a third problem, and it lies with the book’s ethos.

Every volume of cultural criticism is, by its very nature, critical. It would be unreasonable to look at a book like The Benedict Option and expect to see all kittens and rosebuds, particularly in our polemical climate. But Christians who engage in cultural criticism bear special responsibilities. Particularly if they make it their business to preach and prophesy.

First and foremost, they must speak the truth. Leaving aside the nuance issues I’ve already identified, I think Dreher is pretty good about this. He constantly slips into the confessional mode, which insures the appearance of honesty. I don’t think anyone but the most suspicious reader could walk away from the book feeling hoodwinked. The Benedict Option is, if nothing else, a compendium of Rod Dreher’s honest assessments.

A Christian cultural critic, however, must also try his damnedest to persevere in charity. He fails, and fails scandalously, if he lapses into despair.

Now, there are two relevant kinds of despair. The first is a despair of one’s own cause, a kind of bleak, Spenglerian pessimism and bellyaching. Dreher has no problems with this attitude. At his most poetic moments, he is able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. His conclusion includes a few masterfully hopeful passages.

But then there’s a far more subtle and far more tempting despair, the despair over the salvation of one’s enemies. Our culture and our political system have gone mad on this kind of despair. It polarizes and dehumanizes. Why? Because ultimately, it is a despair of God’s mercy.

Dreher is guilty of precisely this kind of despair.

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“Christ’s Descent Into Hell,” Hieronymous Bosch, c. 1550. A painting that resembles Dreher’s view of the world, where a few fragile saints huddle against the overwhelming hellscape – and as in The Benedict Option, you can hardly see Christ at all. (Source).

He paints a neo-noir landscape in black and white. Unlike the world that you and I inhabit, it is merely the stage for a Manichaean spiritual and cultural drama. The villains of Dreher’s narrative are not individuals with souls in need of salvation, but dark and impersonal forces closing in on a haggard band of True Believers. The most important of these demonic forces is the LGBT movement. Dreher returns to it ad nauseum. No other threat to mankind, the West, or the Churchnot war, not Jihad, not environmental collapse, not racism, not economic downturn, not secularism as such, not consumerism, not Transhumanism, not euthanasia, not even abortionoccupies such a shadowy and potent throne in Dreher’s imagination. Everywhere looms the deadly threat of the Great Gay Menace.

Rowan Williams, among others, is right to call out the book’s single-minded obsession with this issue. Over at The New Statesmen, he writes,

Yet there are aspects of his rhetoric that leave a deep unease. “The LGBT agenda” is a phrase that appears on the third page of  the first chapter, and the prominence given to same-sex relations reinforces the common perception that the only ethical issues that interest traditional Christians are those involving sexual matters. In recent interviews, Dreher has been rather less vocally negative about same-sex relations in general than he seems to be in this book, but the phraseology (as in the derogatory use of “transgenderism”), here and elsewhere, sounds a note of angry anxiety and contempt typical of some voices prominent in conservative American religious circles, and somehow jarring with the commendation of Benedictine hospitality and equanimity.

Indeed, some of Dreher’s liberal interlocutors have written potent criticisms on just this point. Alan Levinovitz calls The Benedict Option, as well as Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes, “spiritual pornography,” which he defines as literature that is

…designed to arouse climactic cries of Yes! Yes! in its readers, pleasing the soul’s darker parts by swapping a hollow fantasy of physical union for an equally hollow fantasy of moral warfare…a virtuous few battling mightily against everyone else…Calling spiritual pornography a fantasy helps to evoke its psychological appeal, but the world it conjures up is closer to that of the fairy tale. Both genres are built on two foundational features: dramatic arcs that proceed from Order to Disorder to Order, and clearly defined roles and rules that map neatly onto good and evil. It’s a world that trades humans for archetypes, nuance for simplicity, and the tangled skein of history for the orderly vectors of myth — but if you’re on the side of the angels, living in it feels really, really good.

I won’t go so far as Levinovitz, whose own polemical rhetoric has bordered on the illiberal in the past. What Levinovitz does capture, however, is Dreher’s sometimes hysterical distress over LGBT activism and liberal modernity generally. Levinovitz argues that “the soul of these books is not love of God; it is bitter loathing of those who do not share it.” He isn’t far off the mark.

But liberals who write off Dreher as nothing more than a cantankerous homophobe are doing him and the text a great injustice. To understand Dreher’s approach, we also need to look at one of his better moments. Late in the book, Dreher includes a profile of Spiritual Friendship, and specifically Ron Belgau. Some of what he writes about the experience of gay and lesbian Christians attempting to live a life of chastity is genuinely empathetic. Dreher wouldn’t have bothered to include their inspiring ascetic example if he had some lurking bigotry. Dreher isn’t a homophobe. By all accounts, he never advocates for any hatred or fear of individual LGBT people.

What he does fearor, more precisely, what the book fearsis all LGBT people and all liberals in the abstract. This fear entails a convenient rhetorical move. It lets Dreher confound and occlude the individual personhood of his ideological opponents in such a way that it is easier to consign them to the outer darkness en masse. For if they are not out there, then it will be us, the few, the faithful. Here we can see the ripple of dread that runs through the text.

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Hieromonk Seraphim Rose had a similarly dark view of modernity, but his ethos is more respectable. A homosexual who repented, converted, and entered a monastery, Rose is now widely revered by many Orthodox as a saint. (Source).

For instance, Dreher writes that “we in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it” (17). At one point in the book, Dreher calls the LGBT movement “the tip of the spear at our throats in the culture war” (alas, I could not find the page, so I offer you the quote via David Brooks’s review in the New York Times). Dreher suggests that

In the wake of Obergefell, Christian beliefs about the sexual complementarity of marriage are considered to be an abominable prejudiceand in a growing number of cases, punishable. The public square has been lost. (9).

He also writes,

…the day is coming when the kind of thing that happened to Christian bakers, florists, and wedding photographers will be much more widespread. And many of us are not prepared to suffer deprivation for our faith. (63).

Or this passage in his chapter on Christian labor:

We may not (yet) be at the point where Christians are forbidden to buy and sell in general without state approval [!!!], but we are on the brink of entire areas of commercial and professional life being off-limits to believers whose consciences will not allow them to burn incense to the gods of our age. (179).

Followed up shortly by the statement that “the only thing standing between an employer or employee and a court action is the imagination of LGBT plaintiffs and their lawyers”(181).

The reader can make his or her own judgment about these words. For my own part, I consider Dreher’s contempt a profound, if understandable, failure of Christian charity. At Easter, his own Church sings, “Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection.” That spirit never enters into The Benedict Option in any sustained way. Others have discerned in it a lack of Benedictine hospitality. Levinovitz finds in it a certain resemblance to Jack Chick’s tracts. That’s probably unfair. Dreher’s contempt isn’t sectarian or vicious enough.

The book shares far more important affinities with Atlas Shrugged.

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Atlas Shrugged (Source).

In both, we read of a few stalwarts fending off the gathering darkness of cartoonish, straw-man villains. In both, we encounter a worldview that is increasingly binary, predicated not on the messiness of actual reality but on the black and white imperatives of abstraction. In both, the heroes must enter some kind of retreat (is there any literary analogy to your unfriendly local “Benedict Option community” so apropos as Galt’s Gulch?). In both, we get the sense that the author is entirely self-assured of their own rectitude. And in both, we find the same attitude of contempt for the world, an attitude that is, to borrow the words of Nostra aetate, “foreign to the mind of Christ.”

When Whittaker Chambers famously reviewed Atlas Shrugged for National Review, he wrote that,

Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber–go!”

He wasn’t wrong. John Galt declares,

All the men who have vanished, the men you hated, yet dreaded to lose, it is I who have taken them away from you. Do not attempt to find us. We do not choose to be found. Do not cry that it is our duty to serve you. We do not recognize such duty. Do not cry that you need us. We do not consider need a claim. Do not cry that you own us. You don’t. Do not beg us to return. We are on strike, we, the men of the mind. (For the New Intellectual 131).

At its worst, this is what the Benedict Option becomes. If there are communities that seek to build on Dreher’s more positive and productive suggestions, I wish them well. But I also pray that they leave aside his own venom. It is the final, toxic fruit of forgetting the Eucharistic love of Christ.

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With The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher confirms his place as the Ayn Rand of conservative Christianity. (Source).

Conclusion

I hope to explore my own propositions in my next post. The Church does furnish an excellent example of a saint who dealt with cultural conditions much like our own. I, too, have an “option” I’d like to offer for your consideration, one which is congruent with some parts of Dreher’s book. I’d also like to correct what I see as some of the problems of The Benedict Option.

But not without an important acknowledgement first.

In her review of The Benedict Option, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig points out the fundamental cultural flaw in Dreher’s project; we have been irrevocably formed by modernity. She observes,

There never will be another Medieval subject. All of us in the Anglophone world see with liberal eyes and hear with liberal ears, and to some degree think with liberal minds: Indeed, the lament that we’re no longer Medieval is a comically typical liberal refrain (think of the Romantics, with their Gothic revivalism, or the pre-Raphaelites, with their knights in shining armor). The will to be Medieval subjects again is the desire to return to an age of faith, but this is not an option.

I think it is perhaps this quality that, to paraphrase the remark of a friend, makes The Benedict Option such a great call to conversation and such a poor call to conversion. But it was also, for me, a serious cause for introspection.

And I have to thank Rod Dreher for that.

Reading and reflecting on The Benedict Option made me confront several of the pretensions that I have carried around for a very long time: my ostensible anti-modernism, my belief in the fundamental importance of community, my traditionalism. It didn’t cause me to abandon them all, per se, but to see their limits, refracted and magnified through Dreher’s problematic project.

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Glastonbury Abbey. (Source).

The Benedict Option helped me realize that I don’t really think the world was better before modernity. Every age has been full of tyrants and heretics, massacres and miracles, heroes and hysteria. No epoch is ever really better than any of the others, for what one may lose, another may gain in some unforeseen way. Human nature remains the same. Only the Incarnation of Christ marked a real departure, an intervention that radically transfigured the course of history.

But since then, God graciously allows us to live with our own cultural era’s particular troubles for reasons that remain cloaked in mystery. Perhaps we are meant to “Redeem the time.” The secret animating principle of history is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Let us trust in Providence. If we are given this moment, with all of its challenges, then let us praise God for that gift.

I am a creature of modernity. If you are reading this, so are you. That is an unavoidable fact. As T.S. Eliot writes of the Christian relationship with history,

It is not to ring the bell backward
Nor is it an incantation
To summon the spectre of a Rose.
We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
(“Little Gidding” III).

It is for these reasons that I cannot go where Dreher goes. I’ll admit, finding “The point of intersection of the timeless/With time” is always difficult. But let us never fear! “This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice therein” (Psalm 118: 24 DRA). With the Eucharist in our midst, we can and must live “for the life of the world” (John 6:52 DRA). Only by cleaving to the Eucharistic Christ can we fulfill our duty to be “the Word within/The world and for the world,” in the words of T.S. Eliot. Let us learn to love the worldtragic, sinful, broken though it may beat the foot of the Eucharistic God. We can never love it more than He does.

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The Traditional Mass is not Medieval, but Modern. Yet that does not stop it from also being timeless. (Source).