Across Another River

The Lamb of God at the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Walsingham, Norfolk. Photo taken by the author.

Then, at last, when he had crossed the Old Road, and had gone by the Lightning-struck Land and the Fisherman’s Well, he found, between the forest and the mountain, a very ancient and little chapel; and now he heard the bell of the saint ringing clearly and so sweetly that it was as it were the singing of the angels. Within it was very dark and there was silence. He knelt and saw scarcely that the chapel was divided into two parts by a screen that rose up to the round roof. There was a glinting of shapes as if golden figures were painted on this screen, and through the joinings of its beams there streamed out thin needles of white splendour as if within there was a light greater than that of the sun at noonday. And the flesh began to tremble, for all the place was filled with the odours of Paradise, and he heard the ringing of the Holy Bell and the voices of the choir that out-sang the Fairy Birds of Rhiannon, crying and proclaiming:

Glory and praise to the Conqueror of Death: to the Fountain of Life Unending.

Nine times they sang this anthem, and then the whole place was filled with blinding light. For a door in the screen had been opened, and there came forth an old man, all in shining white, on whose head was a gold crown. Before him went one who rang the bell; on each side there were young men with torches; and in his hands he bore the Mystery of Mysteries wrapped about in veils of gold and of all colours, so that it might not be discerned; and so he passed before the screen, and the light of heaven burst forth from that which he held. Then he entered in again by a door that was on the other side, and the Holy Things were hidden.

Arthur Machen, The Secret Glory, Chapter II

Yesterday was a liturgical confluence of some personal importance for me: St. Philip Neri, St. Augustine of Canterbury, and the Ascension. The liturgical Providence of God thus epitomized my full life of faith on one day. St. Philip Neri, whom I love particularly among all the saints, stands as a good figure for my past. The Ascension points to my own future hope of salvation, when I might join the Ascended Christ, my King and High Priest, in Heaven. To quote a favorite hymn:

The great I AM hath sworn; I on His oath depend.
I shall, on eagle wings upborne, to heaven ascend.
I shall behold His face; I shall His power adore,
and sing the wonders of His grace forevermore.

That leaves St. Augustine of Canterbury, father of the English Church. He is the sign of my present.

On that triple feast, I made my confession in the Episcopal Church and was conditionally baptized under the patronage of the Blessed Patriarch Enoch, “who walked with God” (Gen. 5:24). I then took communion for the first time since Leap Day 2020. As Pascal put it, “Joie, joie, joie, pleurs de joie.”

A post-baptismal selfie.

I have long held some doubts about the validity of my Methodist baptism as an infant in 1995—for which I have no records beyond family photos, but which was for some reason acceptable to my parish and Archdiocese when I completed RCIA. I thus felt it was necessary to rectify that situation. I am now, without any doubt, baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

The reason I did this in the Episcopal Church and not a Roman Catholic one is that, for nearly a year, I have been attending my local Anglo-Catholic parish. St. John’s, Bellefonte, has been a tremendously edifying community. Indeed, it is the only parish where I have felt genuinely wanted, and not simply tolerated. I started attending last summer in the midst of a very deep spiritual crisis. This crisis, which had been percolating off and on since August of 2018, was one that, had I stayed a churchgoing Roman, would certainly have caused me to leave Christianity altogether. It was only by the grace of God that I found spiritual sustenance and safe harbor at St. John’s. It felt like escaping into fresh air from a very large building which is slowly filling with smoke, because an unchecked fire is raging in its wings. It felt like jumping into a lifeboat from a rather majestic cruise-ship that is sinking, even as people keep dancing and the band plays on. It felt like escaping to a beloved aunt from a bad mother who beats you mercilessly (even when you do what she says!) and denigrates you at every opportunity, taking every chance to remind you how much better your siblings are—all while claiming to love you. A mother who asks for tremendous sacrifices and gives no help to accomplish them. A mother who requires all until she forbids all, and forbids all until she requires all, and then demands you forget everything that came before. The Church is a bad mother, not just because of her many spiritual abuses, but precisely because she is inconsistent, all while claiming that such inconsistency is impossible! And who do we believe: the Church, or our lying eyes? 

I did not advertise my transition to regular worship in a TEC church because I wanted to see if I might find any reason to stay in Rome, both through my online interactions and when I went to Catholic Masses upon my visits home. But the hook that I was half-hoping would convince me to stay on the far side of the Tiber never appeared. If anything, I became even more convinced that I should leave. And then, as the day drew near and the details were finalized, I did not tell anyone because I did not want to risk losing my nerve in the face of the old psychological traps. But now that the deed is done, I can, like Ozymandias, explain my “master-stroke” a bit.

I have never written the story of my conversion to Roman Catholicism; somehow, describing my loss of faith is even harder. I am not going to do that here. This is not my Apologia Pro Vita Sua. And I am not here to write a Chick Tract; I remain grateful for much of what I received in the Church of Rome in happier days. I know that no matter what I say, it will not be adequate to describe my own sense of disillusionment, of loss, of bitterness. And I know that, even were I to express at great length, with reason and evidence, all of my historical and theological misgivings about the post-Vatican I Papal Church, or my serious doubts engendered by the still-unresolved Silverstream scandal and similar cases, it would still not matter; many of you will attribute everything to my personal life. So be it.

The chapel of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, on the very first morning I set foot there nearly five years ago. I will, happily, be able to receive communion there upon my next visit.

I don’t feel that I need to justify myself. But I will state my position, briefly.

I have done what I needed to do for the very survival of my faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I repudiate nothing of Catholic Tradition that is true, and good and beautiful; I reject everything that causes scandal, disedification, and injury to the Kingdom of God. I embrace the traditional, episcopal, conciliar constitution of the Church which still exists, however imperfectly, in the Anglican Communion (itself in communion with the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht). And, with all my heart, I abjure the Pope.

I emphatically don’t wish to burn any bridges with my many Roman acquaintances by this disagreement with their theology and separation from their communion. Mostly, I am leaving behind friends. That is my only sadness. I have countless fond memories—Easter Vigils in Charlottesville celebrated with friends, stirring moments of devotion and worship next to friends at the various British Oratories of St. Philip Neri, giving the eulogy at my own grandmother’s Catholic funeral in Aiken, and everywhere engaging in edifying conversations with friends who genuinely believe in Christ and will reach Heaven before me. I wish them well. As long as I could focus on orthopraxy beside such wonderful people, I could ignore the tremendous unpleasantness and the doublethink that being a Roman Catholic actually entailed for me personally.

But I can’t do it anymore. I have no regrets about my decision. God will draw us all together in the last day. I have no doubt that I have not left the one eternal Church of Christ. I have simply moved to a different (healthier?) part of it, one where God in His mercy has deigned to meet me in my terrible distress. To quote a man holier than me, “A mark of the Christian Church is that it is catholic, embracing all the angels of heaven, all the elect and the just on earth, and of all times.” And again: “There is nothing more spacious than the Church of God; because all the elect and the just of all ages comprise it.”

I have come to realize that all I can do to persevere in that Church is trust in the grace of God, focus on the local, and work out my salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). I am under no illusions that my new home will be perfect, that it is free of divisive error, or that I will always be happy here. But neither is Rome: it was full of rather shocking evil, various divisive errors, and keen, mounting unhappiness for me personally.

Our Lady of Walsingham, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bellefonte, PA. Photo by author.

Anglicanism is not perfect. Even as someone convinced of the historical validity of Anglican orders, I recognize this. It is wracked with schism. There are rather atrocious liturgical abuses from time to time. People like John Shelby Spong, James Pike, and John A.T. Robinson exist in their episcopate. Most seriously, there are sexual abuse scandals here, too.  

But Anglicans’ focus on Christ and the Scriptures, their minimalist approach to doctrine, their “inclusive orthodoxy,” their localism, their seemly forms of vernacular worship, their quiet and decorous approach to personal holiness, their epistemic humility, their irenic stance towards Christians beyond their communion, their welcome to LGBT people, their poetic and moderate devotions, their customary aversion to dogmatism and legalism and enthusiasm, their respect for conscience, their aestheticism, even their sense of humor—all of it is vastly superior to what I have found to be the modus operandi in the Roman Church, whether in the typical Novus Ordo parish or in one of the Traditionalist ghettos. But above all, I am attracted to Anglicanism because I find the faith, hope, and charity of Christ there.

And so, “I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord” (Ps. 122:1 BCP). Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, once wrote,

For while the Anglican church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to Gospel and Church and sound learning, its greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and the travail in its souls. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as “the best type of Christianity,” but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died. Hence its story can never differ from the story of the Corinth to which the Apostle wrote. Like Corinth, it has those of Paul, of Peter, or Apollos; like Corinth, it has nothing that it has not received; like Corinth, it learns of unity through its nothingness before the Cross of Christ; and, like Corinth, it sees in the Apostolate its dependence upon the one people of God, and the death by which every member and every Church bears witness to the Body which is one.

Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, pg, 188; emphasis my own

This ecclesiological vision rather perfectly captures my own view of the Church, a view I have tried to express elsewhere.

Illustration from All Glory: Brush Drawing Meditations on the Prayer of Consecration, by Allan Rohan Crite (Cambridge, Mass: Society of Saint John the Evangelist, 1947). My priest was kind enough to give me his copy of this absolutely extraordinary work as a baptismal gift, from which this photo is taken.

And to be quite honest, becoming an Anglican feels a bit like coming home. And not just because, during the Evensong which immediately preceded my baptism, we happened to recite Psalm 24, my old school Psalm. During my first conversion, family friends in the Anglican Continuum were very kind to me and nurtured my fledgling faith. My first copy of the Book of Common Prayer was given to me by another dear family friend, who has since departed this mortal life. Her funeral in Virginia was, I think, one of the first proper Episcopalian liturgies I ever attended (and sang at). I spent two years as a graduate student at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, one of the most Anglo-Catholic seminaries in the Church of England. It is a community of men and women to whom I will be forever grateful. There are many others to thank, among whom I will mention only those who directly and personally encouraged my conversion since last summer: Father B., Mother R., Father J., Father S., CD, KH, RB, JC, and my interlocutors in the EC. You know who you are. I confess, I am grateful as well to those few Roman Catholic friends who, whether out of affection for me or sincere piety, did try to persuade me to stay.

Most of all, I have to thank the people of St. John’s, including my priest, Fr. Carlos de la Torre, a truly tremendous pastor, and Deacon Alex Dyakiw, who has shown me nothing but kindness and who stood as godfather for me. If I ever reach heaven, it will be in no small part due to the example, charity, and prayers of these two good and faithful servants.

There was a moment at the last Easter Vigil that furnished a perfect picture of what I have received at St. John’s. I got to the church early and was so absorbed in my pre-Mass readings that I forgot to pick up a candle. Once the Vigil started at the back of the nave, I realized that I was the only one without a light. Yet my priest, seeing my lack, brought me one. He graciously let me light it—while he was processing with the paschal candle up the aisle. He even paused the procession to give me the flame. This little moment, which no one but me would remember, was a powerful image of grace itself, and how it works in our hearts. That grace, which binds us to the very life of Christ, brings us into the New Jerusalem, builds us into the Eternal Temple, and makes us members incorporate of the Kingdom of God—that almighty grace is “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42). It is because of that grace that I can say, with a confidence born of faith,

One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after;
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.

Psalm 27:4 KJV

It by that grace that I have been baptized into the Jordan, by that grace that I have swum the Thames, and by that grace that II hope to drink one day from another, supernal river, flowing from the Throne of God and the Lamb (Rev. 22:1). I beg your prayers that I may always be faithful to the grace that I have received.

St Philip Neri and the Sick

San Filippo Neri in Glory, Francesco da Mura (Source)

In this year of pestilence, I am reminded that St. Philip Neri began his good works in Rome by, among things, tending to the sick. The hospitals of sixteenth-century Italy were houses of profound mortification and little hope, not much more than palaces of death. They were chronically understaffed and overwhelmed with the indigent and the ill, who rarely recovered. The conditions were extremely unsanitary: the beds were filthy, the air putrid, the din of agony unremitting. Into these seething crowds of the desperate came St. Philip. He assisted the sick as best he could. His first biographer reports that, once he began to gather a following of disciples,

It was Philip’s custom on weekdays to divide his children in Christ into three or four groups and send them to the city hospitals. To begin with, he would himself go after dinner [lunch – RTY] to visit the sick in hospitals, to enkindle by his example in his followers a great desire to do this work; he would speak to the patients, tend them and do all sorts of things for them, which encouraged in his disciples an ardent desire to do the same. One example will serve to show you how devoted they were to the sick. Giovan Battista Salviati, being very dedicated, was in the hospital called the Consolazione, and headed straight for a patient intending to make his bed, asking him politely to get up so that he could do so. The patient thought he was being mocked. “No, my Lord,” he said, “don’t make fun of me, I’m a poor man.” He knew all about Giovan Battista’s licentious way of life, but was unaware of his marvellous change of character, by which he had wholeheartedly turned away from material concerns to the love of heaven. But what next? Giovan Battista urged him most earnestly, and the sick man was struck not only by his air of authority but even more so by his humility, and got out of bed, lost in admiration. Giovan Battista retained that style of life with an unwavering intent until the day of his death, and having once put his hand to the plough, he never looked behind him.

Antonio Gallonio, The Life of St. Philip Neri
Trans. Fr. Jerome Bertram Cong.Orat.

St. Philip inspired others to help the sick in whatever way the could manage. These works of mercy were the fruit of the genuine conversion he wrought in their hearts by that peculiar influence he possessed. The palpable indwelling of the Holy Ghost in his heart turned him into a living fountain of graces whose streams brought miracles to many souls. Some of these miracles healed the sick and even raised the dead. Yet we must never forget that it was not these extraordinary moments but, rather, the graces of repentance, of conversion, and of final perseverance that were truly the greatest fruits of St. Philip’s particular sanctity. St. Philip’s true fame rests in those whom he carried with him to Heaven, not in the strange and marvelous works that he effected while on earth. The story of Giovan Battista Salviati is one example among many of those who tasted of such sweet fruits. He actualized the grace of his conversion through works of charity towards the sick.

Subsequent writers have retained this act as a sine qua non of the Oratorian life, and then only because St. Philip so clearly demonstrates how essential it is to the Christian life per se.

The Vision of St. Philip Neri, Florentine School, 17th c. (Source)

And it seems to me that on this, St. Philip’s feast day, we would be well-advised to do the same. We find ourselves in the midst of a new and terrifying pandemic. Death is everywhere. In the United States alone we have lost 100,000 souls with almost no public mourning. Many of these people have died alone, afraid, in pain, and deprived of the comfort of God’s Church. The nature of the disease means that most of us cannot actively assist in the hospitals for fear of transmission. All we can do is show kindness to our neighbors, help each other obtain the necessary supplies to stop the spread of the disease, and give blood if we have survived the sickness ourselves. That’s as far as practical action goes for most of us. So much for the corporal works of mercy.

But a Christian is never without a way to directly help his brethren. The first and last resort of the faithful must be prayer. Here, too, we can take St. Philip as our model. Lest we place too much emphasis on St. Philip’s merely material acts in visiting the sick, let us turn to the testimony of Giuseppe Crispino,

When we enter a sick-chamber, let us imitate the holy Father Philip, who was accustomed, immediately upon his arrival, to pray for the patients in their own room and to make the bystanders do the same, especially in the case of the dying. The Saint was also accustomed to retire into another room, and there to pray for the sufferer.

Giuseppe Crispino, The School of Saint Philip Neri, pg. 174
Trans. Frederick William Faber

As I have written elsewhere, we must offer intercession for our suffering fellows now more than ever. And we must do so in union with the whole communion of saints. Indeed, one small blessing of this crisis is that it can, if we let it, draw us closer to the “great cloud of witnesses” ever ready to help us. One of St. Philip’s spiritual sons, Fr. Agostino Manni, made special prayers to the Blessed Virgin whenever he went to the hospitals; the Blessed Juvenal Ancina likewise sought the prayers of the living when he ministered to the sick (Crispino 174-76). And that most perfectly Philippine of English Oratorians, Fr. Faber, conceives of intercession for the dying as an intrinsically Marian act. He tells us that

We learn [a lesson] from Mary about the deaths of others. It is, that devotion for those in their last agony is a Mary-like devotion, and most acceptable to her Immaculate Heart. There is not a moment of day or night in which that dread pomp of dying is not going on. There are persons like ourselves, or better than ourselves, and whose friends have with reason loved them more than ever ours have loved us, who are now straitened in their agony, and whose eternal sight of God is trembling anxiously in the balance. Can any appeal to our charity be more piteously eloquent than this?…Are not the dying our brothers and our sisters in the sweet motherhood of Mary? The family is concerned. We must not coldly absent ourselves. We must assist in spirit at every death that is died in the whole world over, deaths of heretics and heathens as well as Christians. For they, too, are our brothers and sisters; they have souls; they have eternities at stake; Mary has an interest in them…How much more must they need prayers, who have no sacraments!…How much more earnest must be the prayers, when not ordinary grace, but a miracle of grace, must be impetrated for them!

Fr. Frederick William Faber, The Foot of the Cross

I cannot help but hear a ringing call to intercession for our own times in these words of Fr. Faber. A greater and more fearsome calamity of general death demands a greater and more dedicated oblation of prayer. Especially when even our brethren in the Faith are so often deprived of the Sacraments that should be their final stay and consolation. Yet the power of God to furnish extraordinary grace is far mightier than any earthly sickness. Healing, protection, mercy, conversion, and consolation: let us boldly ask for these gifts on behalf of the ill, the dying, the dead, their caregivers, and their families…while we still can. The hour is late. Tomorrow we may be struck ill with the dread and deadly pestilence. And then, our every thought diverted, our breath failing, our bodies plunged into the depths of a fatigue from which we shall never rise again, we will be grateful for those pious souls who lift us up to the face of the Father in prayer.

So let us pray while we still can. If we do this in a spirit of charity, we will become true Sons and Daughters of St. Philip and more perfectly emulate the Divine Physician who desires to heal us in soul as well as in body.

May St. Philip Neri pray for us all in this troubled time.

St. Philip Neri, Italian School, 18th c. (Source)

A New Book for a Divided Country

I would like to draw my readers’ attention to a new book that will, I am sure, prove to be one of the more important and provocative publications this year. Dr. James Mumford’s Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes has just been released today in this country after having been out in the UK for a few months. So far it’s been getting compelling reviews. To quote one reviewer,

Vexed is that kind of book: less interested in hard-and-fast answers than undermining supposedly concrete certainties. That may suggest that Mumford indulges in ethics as a kind of academic sport, but at the heart of what he writes is something much more serious than that. The key argument of his book is that failures of what Mumford calls “moral imagination” do not just sully our political discourse.

John Harris, The Guardian

You can hear Dr. Mumford discuss the book himself here.

For me, this publication means something more. I worked as Dr. Mumford’s research assistant in the early stages of the project, as did my old friend Tatiana Lozano (who has written her own blurb about the book on her website). It was, in fact, my first research job. Coming at the end of my undergraduate career, I look back on that experience as a formative stepping-stone in my own scholarly journey.

I don’t know if I’ll agree with everything in the book, as I haven’t yet read it. But it’s wonderful to see a project to which I contributed – however small that contribution may have been – come to completion. I wish Dr. Mumford all the best, and commend the book to my readers.

Cover of Vexed, by James Mumford. (Source)

Elsewhere: A Review about Magic in Modernity

Portrait of Robert Boyle, Father of Modern Chemistry. A scientist distinguished by his open-minded and empirical attitude towards paranormal, supernatural, and magical phenomena. (Source)

I am pleased and proud to announce that I have a book review up at the Genealogies of Modernity Blog. I examine a compelling recent work by historian of science, Michael Hunter. The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment (Yale UP, 2020) is well worth your time. I think it provokes really intriguing questions about the process of disenchantment – a transition that Hunter effectively describes as the methodological eclipse of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle by Isaac Newton. You’ll understand what I mean when you read the review (and the book), so please head on over and give it a read-through!

Thank you to the GoM Blog for hosting my writing, and especially to Mr. Terence Sweeney for kindly asking me to contribute. It was an honor and a pleasure to write for a platform with such intriguing content.

An Interview on Anglican Occultism

Hermes Trismegistus (Source)

Recently I had the great honor of being interviewed on the podcast Poststructuralist Tent Revival (PTR) about my research into Anglo-Catholic hermeticism and occultism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thanks especially to Jacob Given for a great conversation. Please consider subscribing to PTR‘s Patreon! They do some really great stuff.

And for those who want to learn a little more about the broader phenomena I discuss here, you might want to check my brief article in The Church Times, Dec. 2018, on the same subject. While it doesn’t go as deeply as my actual academic work did, it gives an overview of the landscape.

Announcing a New Poetry Publication

A Neo-Gothic ruin. (Source)

I’m very pleased to announce that I have a poem coming out in the Emma Press’s new collection, The Emma Press Anthology of Contemporary Gothic Verse. From the press release:

The anthology was compiled from poems sourced in an open call for submissions launched towards the end of last year. 294 poets entered, of which 26 were chosen for the anthology. Editor Nisha Bhakoo says in her introduction to the book: “My hope for this anthology was to showcase poems that pointed to the uncanniness of our present time, giving traditional gothic tropes a compelling, contemporary flavour. I not only wanted the poems to hold up a mirror to our post-postmodern age, but also to challenge the norms and unwritten rules of it.”

Although I make no money from the sale, please consider buying a copy of the Anthology from the Press’s UK-based store. Small presses need as much support as we can give them, and the Emma Press has published some really great contemporary poetry. Pick up your copy today!

We Do Not Need St. Chesterton

Chesterton at the sea (Source)

The Bishop of Northampton has announced that G.K. Chesterton’s cause for canonization has been dropped. There will be no St. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, his portly visage peering out of a halo over an altar in some out-of-the-way country church. There will be no Gilberttide Novenas, with each day dedicated to some tired and over-labored paradox the man squirted out for an article on H.G. Wells some time in the late Edwardian period. There will be no holy relics passed around – “The pipe he used to smoke with the Blessed Belloc!” – nor even little medals or fat statues cramming the shelves of the stores that specialize in such pious kitsch.

Good. The Bishop has decided wisely. The cause never should have been opened in the first place. Its continuation would represent, if not an abuse of the process, then a serious misstep in the liturgical and devotional life of the Church.

Quaeritur: Why do we raise saints to the altar?

Respondeo: There are three reasons.

1) To hallow and liturgically organize a pre-existing popular cult of a holy person.

2) To recognize that said holy person is in Heaven.

3) To raise up a holy soul as an example to the Faithful.

The third is insufficient on its own. The second is implied and proven in the act of canonization itself, though the inquiry into a saint’s alleged miracles is adjunct to it. The first is thus the most important, foundational reason for the whole process.

As the Bishop pointed out in his statement, there is essentially no local cult of G.K. Chesterton in either his diocese or, I would wager, in the rest of the United Kingdom. There is such a cult in America. I was once part of it, as a member, officer, and president of UVA’s G.K. Chesterton Society. I was thus shocked to discover when I moved to England that nobody – not even most Catholics I knew – read or particularly cared about Chesterton. The British, for reasons I have never really understood, ignore much of their own “spiritual heritage,” as Americans might think of it. Even the relics of St. Edmund Campion barely raised an eyebrow when they visited Oxford in Hilary Term 2018. In the chapel where they were offered for public veneration after a sparsely-attended Mass, I watched as less than half the room went forward to pay their respects to the Jesuit martyr. Can you imagine the crowds that the same small relic would draw in Chicago or Virginia or California?

I digress. The point is that instituting an official cult of Chesterton where no such popular cult exists is to vitiate the process of Beatification.

I remain agnostic as to whether Chesterton is in heaven. I hope he is, and I pray that he might achieve the Beatific Vision if he hasn’t already. But we’ll never know until we get to heaven ourselves, now that the cause won’t advance.

But, is Chesterton an example to the faithful? My own thoughts on the matter are mixed. Clearly, he was a great apologist who presented an appealing if idiosyncratic vision of orthodox Christianity. His conversion was to be commended, as all conversions are. There are, of course, some moral objections one could make. Lingering questions remain about Chesterton’s attitude towards Jews, though the issue is probably overblown. Some have pointed to his large frame as a sign of intemperance and gluttony. However, I think there is perhaps another matter at stake.

Chesterton with his dog. (Source)

It must be said that Chesterton was, as far as we can tell, a very good man. He could be riotously funny. He was probably just the sort of fellow with whom one would enjoy getting a pint. But that quality of conviviality, even when wedded to right doctrine, does not equate to sanctity. If anything, it speaks to the opposite quality, a lack of the salutary ascesis proper to the Christian life. We hear much today of Chesterton’s alleged quote: “In Catholicism, the pint, the pipe and the Cross can all fit together.” Let us leave aside the question of whether the man actually said it (I have struggled to find the source), and accept that he did. The question we should be asking is whether it’s true. And if it is, is it really the sort of thing worth saying anyway? What are pints and pipes but little human vices and pleasures, the things of this world, the ordinary hobbies we enjoy from time to time? A Catholicism that fits them in is probably what most of us (myself included) can strive for, what most of us achieve. But surely that’s not the heroic, sacrificial faith of the Fathers. Would any of the Desert monastics or the martyrs say such a thing? Would any of them really consider it truly pious, if acceptable? Surely we can do better than a religion of the pub stool. Let us aim higher. Let us not canonize this symbol of comfortable Catholicism.

Perhaps the best reason to refrain from canonizing Chesterton was offered in 2013 by Melanie McDonagh:

The first argument against making him a saint is that he was a journalist (the profession he called the easiest in the world); it’s a contradiction in terms. And canonising the man would make his output unreadable. It would invest all the pieces he wrote in railway waiting rooms and Fleet Street bars with the leaden quality of official sanctity. He wrote some of the best literary criticism of the last century — give The Victorian Age in Literature a go — and it would forever be burdened with the approbation of the Catholic Church, which would put a great fat halo between the reader and the text.

I hate even the secular canonisation of the writers I love best — Flann O’Brien is a recent victim — with all the rites of summer schools, conferences and journals. It puts too much weight on their lightest utterances, ossifies their personalities and turns their perfectly lucid writing into the stuff of PhDs. In the case of Chesterton this phenomenon has an especially deadly quality, because the conferences and journals are bound up with contemporary Christian apologetics, a bit like what happened to C.S. Lewis. You might still just about be able to read the Father Brown stories with pleasure if they were billed as being by St Gilbert Keith Chesterton — but it would be despite the billing, by pushing it to the back of your mind. It would be a downright hurdle for secular readers.

Melanie McDonagh, “Why G.K. Chesterton shouldn’t be made a saint.”

Chesterton should not be canonized because doing so would establish him as an authority. Never mind that Chesterton’s famous aphorisms and paradoxes were so often little more than the trite (or even false) quips of a journalist. I have in mind quite another matter; canonization would effectively insulate Chesterton from serious criticism, literary or otherwise. Is that really an effective tribute to a man who was, by all accounts, a brilliant mind? Are we doing him any great service by placing his work under the light of a nimbus? Wouldn’t we rather be paying him the greatest of all insults to a writer, namely, to place him beyond serious and fair consideration? On the other hand, perhaps McDonagh is right – canonizing Chesterton could instead spark a lugubrious academic cottage industry, just as the (American) Evangelical discovery of C.S. Lewis has turned that first-rate children’s novelist and second-rate Anglican theologian into big business. I can only imagine Chesterton would find it all extremely drab.

We should not be too quick to canonize, especially when it comes to writers. I love the books of Flannery O’Connor and find much that is edifying in her fiction. I believe she probably died a holy death. But I don’t think she should be canonized; if a cause were to open, it should be based entirely on the merit of her sufferings.

Julien Green thought that the very act of writing a novel – a good one anyway, that deals with real human experience and the truths of the human condition – inevitably implicates the author in mortal sin. One has to imagine evil, and in portraying it, one engages with it at some level. I don’t know whether that’s true. I have no novels on my CV. But his statement speaks to a deeper point about the act of writing. We cannot escape from the fallibility and fragility of our own humanity, nor a certain fallenness inscribed into the fractured and slipshod structures of our language. This is why criticism is a good thing. Criticism, even pointed criticism, is a sign that one takes an author’s work seriously. It also keeps an author within the bonds of a community of writers, each of whom shares the same basic limitations even as their individual geniuses differ. These are truths that Chesterton himself understood; he, too, was a literary critic.

But the work of canonized writers retains an implicit authority. Sure, philosophers and theologians might dispute over a point in St. Thomas, but rarely do they state outright that the Angelic Doctor is wrong (and he was on several occasions). One could point to other examples. There is a degree to which such deference is acceptable. One of the Church’s great strengths is her long memory and the deposit of theology that acts as a shield around the deposit of faith. Yet this quality of authority is entirely inappropriate with a figure like Chesterton, whose voluminous works largely consist of trivial journalism. True, he made a few good points in Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. There are strange parts of Orthodoxy, too, that make little sense and must be taken for what they are – Chesterton’s deeply personal attempt to understand his faith. And some of his writings are simply bad, wrong, or unreadable. If we take Chesterton seriously as a thinker and a writer, we should say so.

Looking quizzical on a bench. (Source)

I realize that many of my readers, especially British ones, will think I am belaboring the point. If there is no popular cult, then are we really in danger of such an uncritical turn? I would direct such readers to the G.K. Chesterton Society’s website. I would direct them to the inclusion of Chesterton in Bishop Barron’s Catholicism: The Pivotal Players alongside objectively more important figures like St. Augustine, St. Benedict, and Cardinal Newman. I would direct them to that inexcusably hagiographic study of Chesterton’s milieu, Joseph Pearce’s Literary Converts. There may be no local cult per se, but there is a Chestertonian cult of personality spread across the Anglophone church. Especially in America.

The hallowed place Chesterton holds in the hearts of American Catholics is a reflection of a deeper American fetishization of English Christianity. This tendency tends to erect little idols of men such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Mons. Robert Hugh Benson (a deeply bizarre man of unsavory connections), and others.

I believe this tendency reflects a deep cultural anxiety proper to both Americans in general and American Catholics in particular. Unlike Europeans and South Americans, we live in an unhallowed, “historically empty” landscape. We US Catholics carry on an agon with European culture, especially British culture, because we feel deep down that we have never developed an authentically rooted version of American Catholicism. There are few saints native to our shores; the recent popular cult of St. Kateri Tekakwitha is a positive development, as we move beyond the lineup of immigrant clergy who used to make up most of the canon of American saints. If Fr. Augustus Tolton is canonized, all the better. But there remains an unspoken if everywhere manifest anxiety about the authenticity of American Catholicism. Its identity is new, still forming, and thus up for grabs. One effect is a relentless, internecine preoccupation with the culture wars. Liberals and conservatives in the Church largely map on to our broader political axis. But there’s another method of identity-formation, deployed primarily by those on the right end of that spectrum. We borrow the British writers as if they’re our heritage. But this borrowing blinds us to the faults of the men (and it is largely men) whom we take as representatives of a common spiritual ancestry with the Brits. Lewis and Tolkien are emblematic of this trend, and he’s not even Catholic. Yet they are invoked breathlessly by conservative Catholics and Christians in the same way that Harry Potter has become a shibboleth of secular liberals. Chesterton’s memory is in danger of becoming just another tribal marker.

I don’t claim any special insight beyond my compatriots. However, I do think that living in England for the better part of two years has disillusioned me of my former support for this tendency. Chesterton is bigger (in many ways) than the narrow role he has been asked to play by American conservatives. Let him rest in peace, let us read him on his own terms, and let us preserve the altars of the Church from a dubious canonization.

Reflections on Leaving Oxford

Sweet dreams are made of this… (Source)

I have, by the merciful grace of God, passed my M.Phil in Theology at Oxford. I could not have done so without the abundant help of my supervisors and tutors, principally Dr. Sarah Apetrei, as well as the many friends and family who supported me throughout the course of my studies there. Latterly this endeavor has caused me to neglect my blogging, for which I must beg pardon of my readers. Editing, submissions, an examination, travelling, and the arduous business of moving back across the Atlantic has distracted me. So has the bittersweet task of saying goodbye to so many friends, men and women I will miss in the years to come.

Oxford is most beautiful in the Spring. Photo taken by author.

I can understand why our soon-to-be-Saint Newman had so much trouble getting Oxford out of his blood. The place is a mirage in silver and stone. To have dwelt in such a dream-city for so long a time, to have been part of its inner life, to have shaped it according to one’s own character and to be shaped by it in turn, to watch the sun and the rain succeed in their seasons over streets imbued everywhere with a boundless sense of eternity…yes, I can see why Newman was always looking for a path back to this northern Eden. A Papal angel kept him from the gate. More prosaic barriers have turned me aside, namely, the prospects of an academic career in America.

But, in some way, the greater grief is leaving the United Kingdom. Shakespeare called Albion a swan’s nest in a stream. Having traveled from London to Birmingham, from Cardiff to York, from Tenby to Bournemouth, from Cambridge to Edinburgh, from Bath to Stratford, from Walsingham to Wakefield, in short, across the whole face of this country, I can start to see what he means. Britain possesses a peculiar beauty in grey-green and gold, something delicate and immortal that only reveals itself to an attentive foreigner. I shall miss it.

The St. Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral. Photo taken by author.

More than that, I’ll miss the many friends I made in my two years abroad. Not just English either, though there were plenty of those – but also Canadians, Russians, Australians, Irish (both orange and green), French, Armenians, Italians, Romanians, Scots, Sri Lankans, Welsh, Poles, Chinese, and even some of my fellow countrymen. The story of my time in Oxford would not be complete without them. I will feel the absence of each, some more keenly than others.

St. Stephen’s House in the snow, January 2019. Photo taken by author.

I suppose this is as good a time as ever to take stock of some of my travels through life at large. I am 24 years old. I have visited 12 countries beyond the borders of the United States:

The United Kingdom
France
Ireland
Belgium
The Netherlands
Italy
Austria
The Czech Republic
Hungary
Romania
Bermuda
Vatican City

And 14 if one includes layovers and train connections in Germany and Switzerland. I have stood at the banks of the following rivers:

The Thames in London
The Thames in Oxford (Isis)
The Thame in Dorchester (before it becomes the Thames)
The Cherwell
The Liffey
The Seine
The Amstel
The Arno
The Rhône
The Saône
The Tiber
The Danube
The Lys
The Usk
The Avon in Bath
The Loire
The Cam

I have spent quite a lot of time in churches. A few favorites in England include the Oxford Oratory, the York Oratory, the Birmingham Oratory, Magdalen College Chapel, Worcester College Chapel, Oriel College Chapel, Merton College Chapel, St. Stephen’s House Chapel, St. Etheldreda’s, Holborn, and the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. My single favorite church in England remains the Brompton Oratory, as it has been since that first June day I stepped into its vast and holy darkness, four years ago.

A favorite country church – St. Swithun’s, Compton Beauchamp. Full of delightfully ironic Georgian monuments and a complete refurbishment by Martin Travers in the 1930s. The setting is beautiful, too. (Source)

I have so far managed to get to the following Cathedrals (and Abbeys) in England, of which the first two are my favourites:

Winchester Cathedral
Gloucester Cathedral
Norwich Cathedral
Oxford Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral
York Minster
Wakefield Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral
St. Giles’s, Edinburgh
Westminster Cathedral
Westminster Abbey
Bath Abbey
Malmesbury Abbey

Plus some lovely country churches – East Coker, Burford, Stow-on-the-Wold, Binsey, and my very favorite, St. Swithun’s, Compton Beauchamp.

In Ireland, Silverstream Priory remains the most spiritually nourishing place I have ever been; its beauty and its holiness are always palpable.

The Ghent Altarpiece. Seeing this for the first time last February in Saint Bavo’s Cathedral was one of the best moments of my two years abroad. (Source)

My travels on the Continent have been full of their own various ecclesiastical delights, so I’ll only mention a few highlights. My favorite cathedral in the world is St. Bavo’s, Ghent, which represents the perfect fusion of Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, and 19th Century styles. In France, the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal in the Rue du Bac, Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Lyon Cathedral, Notre-Dame de Fourvière, and Saint-Just in Lyon are a few holy places I will not easily forget. Recently, I visited De Krijtberg in Amsterdam, which is the best example of painted Neo-Gothic I have seen beyond the Sainte-Chapelle. Italy is too full of wonderful churches to count, as are the old Hapsburg lands. If I were to choose a favorite in each, I suppose I would have to list the Chiesa Nuova (St. Philip Neri’s home and final resting place) in Italy, as well as Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria, the Matthias Church in Hungary, and St. Vitus Cathedral in the Czech Republic. Though, to be fair, I visited several of these a few years ago rather than on this late sojourn in Europe.

The cloisters, Gloucester Cathedral. America’s greatest fault probably lies in having no Medieval structures in situ. Photo taken by author.

I list these travels not out of any boasting, and, perhaps, not even for my readers. If anything, I do it for myself. I am more interested in remembering these places; writing about them has given me occasion to reminisce, to try and recapture something of the pleasure they gave me once.

I have been very blessed in life. I praise the Good Lord for allowing me the chance to see a bit of the world, to have done useful work, to have read interesting books, to have seen beautiful things, to have drank some good wine, and to have known such wonderful people. What more can one ask for in this brief life?

Crashaw on the Vision of God

Richard Crashaw, one of the great Catholic poets of the seventeenth century, is a perennial source of inspiration. His verse preserves a mystical sensibility that is as refreshing today as it was when it was first composed in the Baroque era. This selection, “A Song,” is one of my favorites. I first had to memorize it many years ago in an English class on prayers (at Mr. Jefferson’s famously secular University, no less). I keep returning to it only to find new riches and new consolations. It seems eminently suited to our mid-Lenten moment, when the faithful yearn to see the face of the Resurrected and Glorified Christ.

Fra Angelico, Christ the Judge (detail) – (Source)

LORD, when the sense of thy sweet grace
Sends up my soul to seek thy face.
Thy blessed eyes breed such desire,
I dy in love’s delicious Fire.

O love, I am thy Sacrifice.
Be still triumphant, blessed eyes.
Still shine on me, fair suns! that I
Still may behold, though still I dy.

Though still I dy, I live again;
Still longing so to be still slain,
So gainfull is such losse of breath.
I dy even in desire of death.

Still live in me this loving strife
Of living Death and dying Life.
For while thou sweetly slayest me
Dead to my selfe, I live in Thee.


Dame Julian of Norwich on the Thirst of Christ

Christ on the Cross, from the Isenheim Altarpiece of Matthias Grünewald (Source)

As part of my Lenten Spirituality Series, here is Dame Julian of Norwich’s meditation on the thirst of Christ, Chapter XVII of Revelations of Divine Love:

“How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, and all my bliss, and all my joy suffer?

And in this dying was brought to my mind the words of Christ: I thirst.

For I saw in Christ a double thirst: one bodily; another spiritual…

For this word was shewed for the bodily thirst: the which I understood was caused by failing of moisture. For the blessed flesh and bones was left all alone without blood and moisture. The blessed body dried alone long time with wringing of the nails and weight of the body. For I understood that for tenderness of the sweet hands and of the sweet feet, by the greatness, hardness, and grievousness of the nails the wounds waxed wide and the body sagged, for weight by long time hanging. And [therewith was] piercing and pressing of the head, and binding of the Crown all baked with dry blood, with the sweet hair clinging, and the dry flesh, to the thorns, and the thorns to the flesh drying; and in the beginning while the flesh was fresh and bleeding, the continual sitting of the thorns made the wounds wide. And furthermore I saw that the sweet skin and the tender flesh, with the hair and the blood, was all raised and loosed about from the bone, with the thorns where-through it were rent in many pieces, as a cloth that were sagging, as if it would hastily have fallen off, for heaviness and looseness, while it had natural moisture. And that was great sorrow and dread to me: for methought I would not for my life have seen it fall. How it was done I saw not; but understood it was with the sharp thorns and the violent and grievous setting on of the Garland of Thorns, unsparingly and without pity. This continued awhile, and soon it began to change, and I beheld and marvelled how it might be. And then I saw it was because it began to dry, and stint a part of the weight, and set about the Garland. And thus it encircled all about, as it were garland upon garland. The Garland of the Thorns was dyed with the blood, and that other garland [of Blood] and the head, all was one colour, as clotted blood when it is dry. The skin of the flesh that shewed (of the face and of the body), was small-rimpled [1] with a tanned colour, like a dry board when it is aged; and the face more brown than the body.

I saw four manner of dryings: the first was bloodlessness; the second was pain following after; the third, hanging up in the air, as men hang a cloth to dry; the fourth, that the bodily Kind asked liquid and there was no manner of comfort ministered to Him in all His woe and distress. Ah! hard and grievous was his pain, but much more hard and grievous it was when the moisture failed and began to dry thus, shrivelling.

These were the pains that shewed in the blessed head: the first wrought to the dying, while it had moisture; and that other, slow, with shrinking drying, [and] with blowing of the wind from without, that dried and pained Him with cold more than mine heart can think.

And other pains—for which pains I saw that all is too little that I can say: for it may not be told.

The which Shewing of Christ’s pains filled me full of pain. For I wist well He suffered but once, but [this was as if] He would shew it me and fill me with mind as I had afore desired. And in all this time of Christ’s pains I felt no pain but for Christ’s pains. Then thought-me: I knew but little what pain it was that I asked; and, as a wretch, repented me, thinking: If I had wist what it had been, loth me had been to have prayed it. For methought it passed bodily death, my pains.

I thought: Is any pain like this? And I was answered in my reason: Hell is another pain: for there is despair. But of all pains that lead to salvation this is the most pain, to see thy Love suffer. How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, all my bliss, and all my joy, suffer? Here felt I soothfastly [2] that I loved Christ so much above myself that there was no pain that might be suffered like to that sorrow that I had to [see] Him in pain.

[1] or shrivelled.

[2] in sure verity.