Flannery O’Connor and the Protestant Ex Voto Tradition

Recently I came across a very strange song from an equally bizarre album. The song was “I’m Not Handicapped, Just Inconvenienced,” by Gary Dee Bradford. It was on his 1979 album of the same title. The piece is a chilling mix of bad ventriloquism, preachy Carter-era Evangelicalism, and awkwardly poor singing. Which means, of course, that I loved it.

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I’m curious what’s on the full album. (Source)

I soon found out that Bradford, who suffers from a rare physical disability called phocomelia (he lacks arms and has hands at his shoulders), produced a few other albums. Although he produced his most recent work in 2002, most of his output came in the 1970’s and 80’s. In one of the only other songs by Bradford I can find online, 1977’s “Good Ole Gospel Music,” we can hear the prepubescent Bradford sing in a high and eerie voice about the superiority of his chosen genre:

It is the sweetest love song
Ever heard by mortal man.
If we had more Gospel Music
We’d have a better land…a better land!

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Gotta love that 70’s montage work. (Source)

It’s catchy, I have to admit. Even if it’s not exactly Mozart.

It would be easy to make fun of the sheer cheesiness of Bradford’s records and write them off as one more episode in the history of odd music. But in fact, Bradford’s albums deserve more respect than that. They tell us something about the history and spirituality of mid-20th century American Christianity. Bradford wasn’t working in a vacuum.

American Gospel music, particularly that brand of Gospel that flourished in the predominately white churches of the mid-century South, has roots in the musical traditions of Appalachia. One of the most common and longstanding song forms found there is the ballad. Appalachian ballads often tell stories of woe and redemption, sadness and hope. When given a religious inflection, they become the musical versions of faith-sharing, testifying to the work of God in redeeming poor sinners. They are also the Protestant equivalents of the Catholic world’s longstanding folk ex voto tradition.

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An example of a Mexican ex voto, 1853. (Source)

The ex voto is a little painted image offered by a devotee in thanksgiving to Christ, the Virgin, or a saint for a perceived blessing. Usually, the scene of the miracle is depicted in fairly simple (or what the art critics would call “naive”) terms, with a short, handwritten narrative describing the incident below. They are emphatically not “fine art.” Ex votos are the result of folk piety, and they depict the most fundamental relationship of the worshiper and the supernatural, the body and the invisible world, faith and crisis.

There’s also a uniquely New-World flavor to the ex voto form. While examples abound from most historically Catholic cultures, the most exemplary tradition of ex votos can be found in Mexico. Indeed, the ex voto has become one of the country’s national art forms, often stylized and reinterpreted by contemporary artists. Frida Kahlo even collected them.

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An ex-voto of a woman stabbed in bed, owned by Frida Kahlo and believed to have inspired her own painting, “A Few Small Nips.” (Source)

We can see the same kinds of spiritual impulses behind a whole wave of calamity-themed songs in mid-to-late-20th century Gospel. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, in a Protestant context, the ex voto takes an audible rather than visual form. Take, for example, Jerry D. Brown’s A Crippled Boy’s Prayer and The Fuller Family’s slightly earlier but almost identical A Little Crippled Girl’s Prayer.

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Not a great song, but it makes sense as a sort of ex voto. (Source)

Sometimes, the album as a physical object mirrors the makeup of an ex voto. The back of the albums often carry long messages of praise and thanksgiving in spite of the various afflictions the artists suffer from. For example, on the back of A Little Crippled Girl’s Prayer, we read the words of wheelchair-bound Marsha Fuller:

It’s so great to be a Christian and serving such a great God. He has given so much to me, for most children with my disease lead a quiet life and never have the opportunities that I have had.  At the age of three He gave me a voice to sing with. And three years later God inspired me to write two songs. Since then, I have written four other songs and made two recordings. He has also blessed me in other ways. He gave me a wonderful Mom and Dad whom have loved and cared for me so much. He gave me a wonderful brother, Gene. You don’t find too many twenty-year-old men who loves to sing for the Lord the ways he does. As a family we have had rough times together. Sometimes we didn’t know where the next meal was going to come from because of hospital bills, but, God has always pulled us through. Our house might not be the biggest and our clothes might not be the finest, but as long as we stay true to Jesus someday we’ll have a mansion that outshines the sun. We truly hope that you will be blessed by our message in song to you. Yours in Christ, Marsha Fuller

There was a veritable cottage industry of Christian albums by blind, amputee, or otherwise disabled artists that flourished in the middle of the twentieth century. To give a few examples:

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Denise’s Closer to the Savior, probably from the 1960’s or 1970’s. (Source)

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Another blind album, It’s Me Again, Lord by Judy & Barbara, the Blind Slye Twins (Source)

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Benny Dean’s I’d Rather Be Blind (In My Eyes Than In My Soul). A bit on the nose. (Source)

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Here’s Something Special from Jeff Steinberg. Note the hook. (Source)

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“Truly a Miracle of God!” (Source)

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Richard & Gail Miller Sing the Gospel of Love. (Source)

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Sandra Kay Hyler in “Through Prayer I Found An Answer.” (Source)

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Another offering from “Little Richard Miller,” this time with cover art that closely if unintentionally replicates the ex voto model. The full album is online for your listening pleasure. (Source)

These musical works differ from the mainstream of Protestant aural culture in that, even when the songs themselves are classic hymns or are just covers of more obscure songs by disabled artists, they take on a new, personal, and highly-charged meaning in the context of public disability. The artists are not just performing music, they are performing both disability and Christianity – indeed, they perform their disability precisely as the core of their Christianity, and their Christianity as intimately bound up with their disability. The singer born without arms or the blind crooner or the organist missing her hands can all achieve a new status as an icon of model Christian disability. Their performance points towards the hope of a transfiguration that surpasses disability in the kingdom of heaven. Moreover, their physical or mental incapacity is often an implicit analogy for the spiritual deformation, blindness, or weakness found in the more conventional Gospel ballad. The healing of both comes from Jesus.

Mary Douglas, among other anthropologists, has noted that the body physical is often used as an analogy of the body politic. The symbolic representation of the individual corpus speaks to the social body at large – culturally-coded anxieties about the limits of the physical body frequently point to an underlying anxiety about threats to the community. Should it surprise us that the most visible flowering of this disability-obsessed genre came at a time when the culture wars were starting to animate the full force of Southern and Midwestern Protestantism into a politically active bloc with an agenda for cultural change? Surely that socio-political context stands behinds Gary Bradford’s “better land.” The Evangelical doom song, with perhaps its best representatives in the Louvin Brothers, rose to prominence at much the same time.

The fundamentalist folk spirituality that these songs present are a major cultural context in the wonderfully disturbing, deeply Catholic work of Flannery O’Connor. In her short story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” she injects it into her description of a Southern freak show. A hermaphrodite addresses two crowds – one made up of men, another of women – before displaying its unusual genitalia. The freak says,

“I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.” The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal and neither high nor low, just flat. “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.” Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over onto the women’s side and said the same thing. (The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor 245).

Later, the hermaphrodite leads a kind of religious service centered on its own experience of God’s Providence.

She could hear the freak saying, “God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute hit,” and the people saying, “Amen. Amen.”
“God done this to me and I praise Him.”
“Amen. Amen.”
“He could strike you thisaway.”
“Amen. Amen.”
“But he has not.”
“Amen.”
“Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God’s temple, don’t you know? Don’t you know? God’s Spirit has a dwelling in you, don’t you know?”
“Amen. Amen.”
“If anybody desecrates the temple of God, God will bring him to ruin and if you laugh, He may strike you thisaway. A temple of God is a holy thing. Amen. Amen.”
“I am a temple of the Holy Ghost.”
“Amen.”
The people began to slap their hands without making a loud noise and with a regular beat between the Amens, more and more softly, as if they knew there was a child near, half asleep. (Ibid., 246)

O’Connor, who suffered from lupus herself, draws a parallel between the freak’s preaching and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. In the two episodes, we can perceive both the sovereignty of God’s Providence and the sacramental capacity of matter to bear God.

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A holy card depicting a monstrance, used in Benediction. (Source)

It strikes me as intuitively sensible that O’Connor should have chosen precisely this story to contrast Protestant and Catholic music. Early on in the story, two young Church of God men try to woo a pair of Catholic sisters by singing a Gospel hymn, complete with guitar and harmonica. The girls, who have been educated at convent school, bite back their giggles and respond with the Tantum Ergo. One of their suitors is more right than he knows when, puzzled and slightly disapproving, he calls it “Jew singing.” The two forms of music, though standing in an apparent contradiction, together anticipate the underlying sacramental truth presented by both the Protestant and Catholic services that conclude the story.

O’Connor makes much of Protestant devotional culture in one of her novels, The Violent Bear It Away (1955). It is the story of a boy called to prophesy, of his skeptical schoolteacher cousin, and of the battle they wage for the soul of a mentally disabled child. At one point, we come to the performance of a family of traveling musical missionaries. The high point of the act comes when their little daughter emerges from behind the curtain to preach a rousing sermon. In the course of her preaching, she delivers what may be the book’s central message:

“I’ve seen the Lord in a tree of fire! The Word of God is a burning Word to burn you clean!…Burns the whole world, man and child…none can escape…Are you deaf to the Lord’s Word? The Word of God is a burning Word to burn you clean, burns man and child, man and child the same, you people! Be saved in the Lord’s fire or perish in your own! Be saved in…” (The Violent Bear It Away 134-35).

O’Connor is fond of granting the most clear-eyed spiritual vision to the children in her stories. Many have profound experiences of grace that mark them forever, or they bear testimony of the invisible world’s dangerous immediacy to more skeptical characters.

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This album makes me think of O’Connor’s 1955 The Violent Bear It Away. (Source)

That includes O’Connor’s disabled children. “The Lame Shall Enter First,” one of O’Connor’s most emotionally crushing short stories, is a close companion to The Violent Bear It Away. It tells the story of a well-meaning social worker, Sheppard, who takes in a clubfooted juvenile delinquent, Rufus Johnson, hoping to steer him towards a productive life. Although he can overlook Rufus’s constant spite, Sheppard is exasperated by the fundamentalist beliefs he clings to. Rufus is convinced he is going to hell, and starts to talk about it with the social worker and his impressionable young son. He steadily grows into the role of preacher even as Sheppard tries desperately to “flush that out of [his] head.” I won’t get into any spoilers, as the story has a wrenching, unforeseen climax. I’ll just say that Sheppard finally realizes he has failed only when Rufus cries at him,

“I lie and I steal because I’m good at it! My foot don’t have a thing to do with it! The lame shall enter first! The halt’ll be gathered together. when I get ready to be saved, Jesus’ll save me, not that lying, stinking atheist, not that…” (The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor 480).

Sheppard attributes all of Rufus’s bad behavior to the emotional effect of his clubfoot. But Rufus finds his one hope of salvation in the fact that he has a disability that, according to the logic of heaven, will ensure that he enters the Kingdom first. For Rufus, as for so many of the artists mentioned above, it represents both faith and hope (if not yet charity). Sheppard is too blinded by his prejudice and his loneliness to see that. The results are calamitous.

Rufus’s underlying insight speaks to a truth often forgotten in the Church’s treatment of the disabled. Those with disabilities are not “problems.” It’s true that they may have some special needs with regards to access, attention, etc. But at the end of the day, they are people who have the same basic spiritual needs as any other human beings. They, too, can embody and image Christ – often better than those of us who are blessed enough to be of both sound mind and body.

Gary Bradford himself has spoken publicly about this issue before. Some time in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, Bradford – by then an adult – gave an interview with a Christian television network. He says,

In the past…so many of our churches, and so many of our people in our church in the past, it’s been the place for the good, the well-bodied, and the abled…And the Church isn’t to be like that; the Church is to take all.

Of course, the other great danger is to place too much emphasis on the disability and not enough on the person who has it. The “magical disabled person” should not become a trope in Christian life. We can’t load our disabled brethren in Christ with that moral freight. It isn’t fair. The disability Gospel genre fosters precisely that kind of harmful thinking; perhaps that is its greatest cultural fault.

I think we can avoid either extreme – neglect or overemphasis – by focusing instead on the individuality and personhood of every disabled Christian. Insofar as the disability Gospel song is an ex voto, it may seem to correspond to a certain type. Catholic ex votos usually do. But that’s only to the outsider who beholds the ex voto. For the one who makes it (or commissions it), the story it tells carries intense and highly particular personal meaning. Put another way; Sheppard may not grasp the hidden meaning of Rufus’s club foot, but Rufus does.

The same goes for the Protestant ex votos we find in this genre. They may seem to correspond to the demands of a cottage industry, but they all epitomize and present individual experiences. That particularity is the best thing we can take from this strange, lost genre of Christian music. There are no generic souls, abled or otherwise.

 

Unfashionable Thoughts on the Proliferation of Bibles

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A depiction of Pentecost (and thus Our Lady of the Cenacle) in an illuminated A from a Lombard antiphonal, 1430’s. Attributed to Stefano da Verona and now in the possession of the Getty Museum. Not a Bible, though. (Source)

Erasmus, that mercurial fellow of the Renaissance who did so much damage with such good intentions, hoped that the humanist scholarship then revolutionizing Biblical studies would produce a popular spiritual awakening. He foresaw a time when, the Bible having been translated into vernacular languages, “the farmer would sing parts of the scripture at the plow, the weaver hum them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveller lighten the weariness of his journey with like stories.” What he got was the Reformation.

Those of us Catholics who have the benefit of historical hindsight can perhaps treat Erasmus with a degree of charity. He did not foresee the storm that he was helping to prepare. At best, his image of the Word-infused society is one that we can and ought to strive for. But things have gone rather differently in what used to be Christendom. The plurality of conflicting Biblical interpretations, stemming both from theological divisions and from theologically-motivated translations from the standard scriptural texts of pre-modernity, has eroded the communion of the full body of Christians. Though by no means the only factor in secularization, this loss of even the pretense of unity significantly impaired the Church’s evangelical witness.

But of course, certain divisions along theological lines always existed in pre-modernity as well. Heretics, mystics, and scholars often disagreed with the orthodox establishment over various exegetical points, and sometimes those divisions were backed by political force. So, what made the Reformation different? Perhaps it was the material condition that stands behind Erasmus’s vision – the advent of the printing press. After all, the mass dissemination of information that the printing press spread and entrenched the Reformation (and the Catholic Reformation) as early as Luther’s first moves in 1517.

But I wish to speak less of early modernity and more of our own era. And, standing firmly in our present moment, I must conclude that printing the Bible was a mistake. Or, to be precise, the mass production of Bibles was a mistake.

An Observation

Walk into any sizeable book store – a Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million, perhaps. Wander the shelves and you will no doubt eventually come upon the Bible section, sometimes rows and rows of it. I recently did, as I have done many times before. On this recent occasion, I came upon more Bibles than I could count. There were dozens of different translations into English, often sold by competing Bible companies.

Leaving aside that variety, I was struck by the sheer overwhelming diversity of the Bibles as physical objects. I found Bibles in boxes, Bibles in plastic, Bibles in hardcover and paperback. There was an art-journalling Bible that seemed to combine the recent coloring fad with the word of God (curiously, there seemed to be no human faces in any of the images, rather reminding one of another religion’s sacred art). There was a “Rainbow Bible,” not a camp copy of the scriptures but a text pre-highlighted in various hues to illustrate thematic points. There’s a C.S. Lewis Bible for those who like to take their Jesus in leonine form. There’s a Lego-illustrated Brick Bible, and, let the reader carefully note, it’s not the same thing as The Brick Bible for Kids. Erasmus would be pleased to see that there are occupational Bibles, such as Bibles oriented to students, doctors, nurses, firefighters, police, and soldiers. There’s even an American Patriot’s Bible.

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This is a real thing. (Source)

But perhaps the greatest division beyond the inevitable Catholic/Protestant scriptural distinction is gender. Many of the Bibles (and Bible accessories such as carrying cases) are very clearly oriented to men or women. For instance, who is the intended buyer for a Bible in pink pleather binding with floral design on the cover? And who is targeted by a camo Bible carrier with the words “Armor of God” on it? One could cite similar examples ad nauseam. Again, go to your local bookstore. While you may be more likely to find a Bible section in the South or Midwest, I’d wager you could locate one in almost any part of the country. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

Some of these phenomena are not limited to Protestant Bibles, though Catholic Bible companies clearly lack the inventiveness and marketing ingenuity displayed by purveyors of Protestant Bibles. They are guilty of another sin. Mostly, Catholic Bibles just look bad. Many of them are just dumpy paperback bricks that no one wants to read, let alone have around the house. When your Bible fails even on a coffee table, you know you’re doing something wrong.

The Problem

These trappings are all deeply insidious for several reasons.

First, they enlist the Word of God in the maintenance of fallible worldly systems such as the nation, the state, the military-industrial complex, and various forms of social authority, thus stripping the Word of its critical power.

Second, they subtly encourage an unhealthy personalization of spiritual life. We are not Christians alone with God, but part of one Body of Christ. Ultimately, we can’t really own the Bible – not by ourselves. It can never be a private document, subsisting in a personalized meaning.

Third, in a perverse inversion of the last point, these trappings turn the Bible into a physical totem of a human subculture with its own recognized social-symbolic markers and status symbols. The Bible does not belong to the world of conspicuous consumption.

Fourth, the gendering of the Bible is a uniquely vicious practice, probably intended for what are innocently if cynically capitalist reasons. These Bibles sell, no doubt. But they also reinforce problematically rigid gender norms which speak to a wider cultural bifurcation of the Word of God into a Gospel for men and a Gospel for women. I have seen this phenomenon with my own eyes in both Evangelical and Catholic contexts. I have known people who have suffered because of it, some even falling away from the Faith entirely. Have we so easily forgotten the words of St. Paul that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus?” (Gal 3:28 KJV).

Fifth, these trappings commodify and trivialize the Word of God. The Bible is something to be sold. It becomes one item in the marketplace among many others. If you don’t like it in black, you can have it in any color under the sun. You can get a version that says things the way you like. The capitalist system affords the Bible no special treatment as a text; it is a book to be sold like any other book. And how it sells!

The Decay of the Scriptural Aura

There are those who will here object that I am taking too material a view of the Bible. After all, they will say, isn’t it better that the message of the Bible is dispersed far and wide, even if some of the editions are trivial or problematic? Why should it matter if some editions have silly themes or appear as commodities among other commodities? Isn’t it worth it?

I take exception with this attitude for a few reasons. My first is purely sectarian, in that, as a Catholic, I object to the unaided reading of scripture and the erection of private judgment as any kind of rule in its interpretation. The Church is the preeminent exegete, and without her, we are liable to fall prey to our own sinful reasonings. Some Protestants will find this objection unconvincing; Catholics, at least, should find it uncontroversial.

But the issue cuts deeper than that. We should treat the Bible as a sacramental. It is not just any book. The visible scriptures convey grace by summoning the heart to an awareness of what is invisible. And this precisely because we, as human beings, are sacramental. We are body and soul, matter and spirit. Our religious lives are healthier when both are brought together under a common obedience to Christ in a biune ministration of grace. The sacraments are fitted to our nature. So are sacramentals; so are the scriptures. Turning the Bible into a personalized commodity cheapens its quality as one of the paradigmatic sacramentals.

We ought not lose sight of the fact that this deadening process of commodification, however far-rooted it may be in history, has taken off with alarming speed in our own time precisely because of the cultural features of postmodernity. We live in a sign-saturated age. Both words and images fill our view at almost every waking moment, whether they be painted, printed, written, or digital. And signs, like coins, lose their value with over-production. Is it any surprise then that narrativity has become strained as well? Can we be shocked that those explanatory schemes which once held together our culture and our own personal sense of meaning have long since melted into air? Nothing has survived the thoroughly American logic of consumerist capitalism; can anything withstand the acid-bath of “innovation?” These questions have been with us since the 1970’s, when philosophers first began to take note of, as Lyotard called it, “the postmodern condition.” They have yet to be fully resolved.

One other feature of postmodernity with direct bearing on our subject was first examined by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin notes that, in premodern conditions, art objects were imbued with an “aura,” a sense of absolute singularity and unique presence that belonged to the artifact under the eye of the viewing subject. It was this quality that bound art to its original context in ritual. Indeed, some of you may notice that this idea is latent in Aquinas’s idea of claritas, without which nothing can be beautiful. But in an age where art can be reproduced again and again, an image can proliferate, as can the experience of seeing the image, without any of the unique presence that comes from contact with the original. We have witnessed the “decay of the aura.” And since, in Benjamin’s words, “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition,” then the “tremendous shattering of tradition” in postmodernity has thoroughly dispensed with the aura.

Bibles used to have an aura. Before the advent of the printing press, Bibles were expensive, rare, hand-crafted codices, often illuminated with historiated capitals and copious illustrations that drew upon pigments as rare as lapis lazuli and gold itself. So were other prayer-books – and the Bible was indeed meant for prayer. For the monks who labored over their manuscripts in their scriptoria, the Bible was not just a status symbol for the noble or prelate who had ordered it. The Bible was a liturgical book; the monk knew the scriptures precisely because of his immersion in the liturgy of the Church, which at Mass and the eight offices of the Opus Dei presented the Bible to him as the very marrow of prayer. The Bible belongs to the liturgy, for both reveal Christ.

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The Bible historiale, Clairefontaine and Paris, 1411. Now in the British Museum. (Source)

The Psalter, which is prayed in full by Benedictine monks each week, was yet another stand-alone portion of the scriptures that was often luxuriously illuminated as sacred art. The Books of Hours were also richly illuminated. These declensions of the Divine Office especially intended for laymen are yet another example of a scriptural prayer-book that was routinely infused with an “aura.” Those of us who have been lucky enough to see illuminated manuscripts of any sort in person can attest that they’ve still got it.

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The letter B from the Breslau Psalter, Psalm 1. (Source)

At a certain level, the question of the “aura” is a purely natural one. But the “aura” points to a supernatural reality, the underlying sacramental possibility of all creaturely matter. Because the Word has taken flesh in Christ, matter can take on divinity – it can become theophoric, bearing God, and theophanic, manifesting Him.

The aura inspires reverence. And it is meet and right that the very book where we find unfolded before us the Face and Name of God, the Bible, should make us turn towards heavenly things. The Jewish mystical tradition provides insights into the profound holiness of the Bible. We read, “We have learned that the Holy One, blessed be He, is called Torah…And there is no Torah but the Holy One,” (“Zohar” 2:60a, Beshalach). Likewise, St. Augustine would find much to agree with in the words of the Jewish mystic who writes,

It is also true that the upper root of the holy Torah is in the highest level of the worlds that are called the worlds of the Infinite Godhead [Ein Sof]…That is why the Sages say that the Torah preceded the world, that is it preceded all worlds. For they even say that it preceded the Throne of Glory. (“Nefesh Hachaim” 4:10).

The truth at the heart of this mystery is that of the Logos, the Word who is God, manifesting himself in creation, in natural law, in revelation, and then definitively in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, the holiness of the Bible partakes of Christ’s own divine holiness. Our starting point for any discussion of the scriptures as physical texts must be the sentiment that Louis Bouyer describes,

“No man can see God and live”: this means that the vision of God would bring death to a human being. The idea contained in this saying is a basic idea of the whole of Jewish revelation which we have lost all too completely, for with it we have lost the sense of the sacred, that is, ultimately, the sense of God. If anyone has not understood…that not only for men, but for all other creatures too, God is the Sovereign, the Utterly Other, the Pure, the Inaccessible, then he does not know what God really is. (The Meaning of the Monastic Life 41).

Once the aura has decayed, what are we left with? We are like those benighted souls described by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who “carved out of the ponderous old rock-hewn Tablets of the Law ornamental figures so tiny that people gladly found room for them on smart dressing tables, in drawing-rooms and ballrooms.” Was there ever a more apt description of what we have done to the Word of God, materially and spiritually? For when we commodify the Bible, we commodify its message. When we objectify the Bible, we objectify its message. When we trivialize the Bible, we trivialize its message. Is there anything more dangerous in a world grown cold to the Gospel? The same can be said of the liturgy. Banality in the ars celebrandi vitiates the aura embedded in the ritual. We have a responsibility to maintain higher standards.

A Return to the Family Bible

Let me be very clear. My objection here is to both the mass proliferation and the sheer diversity of Bibles on the market. These two phenomena, even more than the underlying condition of their quality as printed material, have destroyed the aura of the Word of God. But I should note in all fairness that many Christians, at least in the English-speaking countries, used to maintain a strong sense of the Bible’s auratic sacramentality. That time-honored institution of the Family Bible, often an enormous and ornamental tome passed down from generation to generation as an heirloom and a testament of enduring faith, once preserved a kind of aura. What undermined this institution and the kind of home liturgies that once sustained it? Was it the Gideons? Was it the travelling Bible salesmen satirized so acerbically by Flannery O’Connor in Good Country People? Or was it the broader cultural force of capitalist individualism exacerbating the collapse of narrativity and traditional community, rendering the search for salvation even more personal – and thus lonelier and more consumerist – then ever before?

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A typical “Family Bible” of the nineteenth century. (Source)

I recognize that I am complicit in this problem. I own several Bibles, not all of which were gifts, and not all of which are very good. But I believe that most of us Christians are bound up with the cultural conditions which have produced so many and such shoddy copies of the scriptures. We can’t start to imagine a better way until we re-assess our relationship with the sacred. While it’s impossible to go back to the scriptoria of Cluny or Clairvaux, we can begin to appropriate their view of the Bible as a liturgically-grounded manifestation of the Divine Word. Perhaps we can start to produce more beautiful Bibles – even auratic ones. More depends on it than we might think. After all, the illumination of the page was always an anticipation of and metaphor for the illumination of the soul.

My First Year at Grad School in Twelve Musical Selections

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A still from Farinelli. This was the year I both became an 18th century scholar and discovered Castrato arias. (Source)

12. “Somebody That I Used to Know” only Vaporwave.

11. “Sumer is Icumen In,” from The Wicker Man (1973).

10. “Demons,” by Alex and “Sleep Games,” by Pye Corner Audio.

9. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake theme.

8. Psalm 129 from King’s College Choir, Cambridge.

7. The soundtrack from Le Roi Danse.

6. “Never Enough” from The Greatest Showman.

5. “Pur Ti Miro,” by Monteverdi.

4. The Little Match Girl Passion, by David Lang

3. The Farinelli soundtrack.

2. Michael Nyman’s “The Garden is Becoming a Robe Room,” “Prospero’s Magic,” and “Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds.”

1. Various Arias from Handel, especially Rinaldo‘s “Il Vostro Maggio” and “Lascia Ch’io Piangia” as well as most of “Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne.”

 

The Voice of Arthur Machen

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The title illustration of Machen’s The Great God Pan and the Inmost Light (1896), famously rendered by Aubrey Beardsley (Source)

Arthur Machen (1863-1947) was one of the greatest horror writers in the English language. His particular brand of esoteric paganism, the dangers of the occult, the sinister truth lurking behind folktales, and a highly-developed knack for evoking eldritch terror – all of these elements exerted a profound influence on the development of weird literature. Those who enjoy Lovecraft will recognize much in Machen that later made its way into Lovecraft’s own corpus. The dark bard of Providence held Machen in high esteem.

Machen was also a deeply spiritual Christian, best but imperfectly classed as an Anglo-Catholic. His strong sense of the mystical life found its fullest expression not in his horror stories, which do indeed bear some mark of his sacramental worldview, but in his later writings. A Welshman, he was fascinated by the Grail legend and connected it with his idea of an ancient, vividly supernatural “Celtic” Christianity.

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Portrait of Arthur Machen (Source)

Machen is a favourite of mine. I cannot recommend his stories highly enough – especially The Great God Pan, “The Novel of the White Powder,” “The Shining Pyramid,” “The Ceremony,” and “The Lost Club.” He is far scarier than some of his better-known contemporaries such as M.R. James or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

He also figures prominently in some of my research. I recently came upon a recording of his voice from 1937, in which he speaks of Chesterton, Dickens, Thackeray, and the art of fiction more broadly. Some of my readers may find this as enjoyable as I do, and so I provide a link here.

Monsieur Olier on the Ascension

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The Ascension fresco at Queen’s College Chapel, Oxford – perhaps my favorite chapel in the entire University. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP. (Source)

One of the greatest luminaries of the French Church in the 17th century, that period known as the Grand Siècle, was Jean-Jacques Olier. Though barely read today, he exerted a profound influence upon the formation of the French School of Spirituality through his work in founding the Sulpician Order. He was a close associate of St. Vincent de Paul, who always regarded him as a saint.

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M. Olier, priez pour nous! (Source)

I have excerpted here his short chapter on the Ascension from his book, The Interior Life of the Most Holy Virgin. I must ask my readers to forgive me for not translating this edifying work, as I did not have the time. Those with French, however, will appreciate the depth of M. Olier’s insight.

***

Le sacrifice de Jésus-Christ étant offert pour l’Église, qui est visible, devait être visible lui-même dans toutes ses parties, afin de nous donner une certitude parfaite de notre réconciliation avec Dieu. Marie, dans le jour de la Purification, avait paru à l’offrande de la victime, en présentant elle-même, au nom de l’Église, Jésus-Christ notre hostie, et en le dévouant à l’immolation. Elle avait aussi été présente à la deuxième partie du sacrifice, à l’immolation réelle de Jésus-Christ sur la croix. La troisième, qui était la consommation ou le transport de la victime en Dieu, avait eu lieu dans le mystère de la Résurrection. Mais cette consommation s’était opérée d’une manière invisible; et la bonté de Dieu voulait que, pour notre consolation, cette partie du sacrifice devînt visible aussi bien que les deux autres, ou plutôt que Notre-Seigneur montât au ciel pour aller se perdre dans le sein de Dieu non-seulement à la vue de la très-sainte Vierge sa mère, mais encore sous les yeux de tous les apôtres par qui l’Église était représentée. C’est ce qu’avait figuré autrefois Élie montant au ciel dans un char de feu à la vue d’Élisée ; et ce prophète avait déclaré expressément à son disciple que, s’il le voyait monter, il aurait son double esprit. Don mystérieux, qui exprimait le fruit du sacrifice, c’est-à-dire l’esprit de mort et de résurrection ou de vie divine, que Jésus-Christ devait laisser à l’Église figurée par Élisée.

Après sa résurrection, il communiquait toutes les dispositions et tous les sentiments de son âme à sa bénite Mère. Il lui exprimait spécialement les désirs ardents qui le pressaient d’aller enfin se réunir à Dieu son Père, pour le louer et le glorifier dans le ciel. Marie, de son côté, éprouvait un véhément désir d’y accompagner son Fils, pour s’unir à ses louanges; et sans doute qu’elle eût terminé alors sa vie et l’eût suivi dans les cieux, s’il n’eût voulu se servir d’elle pour aider l’Église dans ses commencements.

L’oeuvre de cette divine Mère était encore incomplète. Après avoir donné, par Marie, naissance au chef, Dieu voulait procurer aussi, par elle, la formation de tout le corps. Il voulait la rendre mère de sa famille entière, de Jésus-Christ et de tous ses enfants d’adoption. Par zèle pour la gloire de Dieu et par charité pour nous, elle accepte avec joie la commission que Notre-Seigneur lui laisse de travailler à faire honorer son Père par les hommes, et de demeurer sur la terre jusqu’à ce que l’Église ait été bien affermie.

Le quarantième jour après la Résurrection étant donc venu, Jésus-Christ- se rend à Béthanie avec sa sainte Mère et ses apôtres; là élevant les mains et les bénissant, il se sépare d’eux, et en leur présence s’élève vers le ciel. Ils l’y suivirent des yeux, jusqu’à ce qu’enfin une nuée le dérobe à leur vue; et comme néanmoins ils tenaient toujours leurs regards fixés au ciel, deux anges vêtus de blanc leur apparurent et leur dirent : Pourquoi vous arrêtez-vous à regarder le ciel? Ce Jésus, qui a été attiré du milieu de vous dans le ciel, viendra de la même manière que vous l’avez vu monter au ciel. Ainsi Dieu voulut-il que l’acceptation solennelle qu’il faisait de notre hostie, eût pour témoins non-seulement tous les apôtres et la très-sainte Vierge, qui l’avait produite de sa propre substance, mais les anges eux-mêmes.

En montant dans les cieux, Jésus-Christ élève avec lui tous les saints patriarches et les autres justes qu’il avait retirés des limbes, et va les offrir à son Père, comme les premières dépouilles qu’il a ravies au démon par sa mort. Enfin, dérobé par la nuée à la vue de ses disciples, il laisse rejaillir la splendeur de sa gloire, qu’ils n’auraient pu soutenir et dont il avait retenu l’éclat dans ses diverses apparitions.

Comme les enfants des rois donnent des présents à leurs sujets, en faisant leur entrée dans leur royaume, Jésus-Christ, montant à la droite de son Père pour prendre possession de son trône, voulait envoyer à ses apôtres son esprit et ses dons, c’est-à-dire dilater son coeur en faisant entrer les hommes dans ses sentiments de religion envers Dieu son Père, et achever ainsi son ouvrage. Dans ce dessein et par son commandement, les disciples s’assemblèrent à Jérusalem avec la très-sainte Vierge et plusieurs saintes femmes; et là ils étaient en prière, louant, bénissant le nom de Dieu, et attendant la venue de l’Esprit-Saint. Marie était au milieu d’eux et présidait ce sacré concile, comme ayant, pour aviser à établir la gloire de Dieu dans le monde, une grâce qui excellait par-dessus celle de tous les apôtres. Quoique Jésus-Christ n’eût pas voulu qu’elle fût présente à la Cène, ni qu’elle offrît extérieurement le saint sacrifice, ni qu’elle fût prêtre selon l’ordre de Melchisédech, il voulait néanmoins que Marie, destinée à être la mère des vivants, se trouvât dans le Cénacle avec les apôtres, afin de verser la plénitude de son esprit en elle, comme dans le réservoir de la vie divine, et de la distribuer par elle à tous ses enfants, et aussi pour apprendre à l’Église que jamais elle ne serait renouvelée qu’en la société de sa divine Mère et en participant à son esprit.

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A rococo altar depicting the Ascension, Ottobeuren, Germany. (Source)

A Relic of the 1965 Liturgy

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Album cover of the Missa Luba. (Source)

That strange Mass produced by the Council in 1965, an interim liturgy somewhere between the Usus Antiquior and the Novus Ordo, was often accompanied by a distinctive style – at once traditional and fresh, what has been called by some “The Other Modern.” Think of the decoration of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C – especially its many side-chapels. Think of the delightful, dignified, but very vernacular liturgical music of Fr. Clarence Rivers (at least his early material). Think of the ornate but often geometric vestments that emerged from that time. Indeed, just think of Paul VI’s space-age papal tiara.

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The hybrid Mass of 1965. Not ideal, but considerably better than what followed. (Source)

Recently I discovered a reminder of this strange time in the Church’s history. I was watching a 1968 movie called If… with friends. It’s a disturbing (if artful) film about an uprising at a traditional British public school, and was clearly made in conversation with the student protests that erupted that fateful Spring, fifty years ago. I was surprised to find that one of the major musical motifs was liturgical. Looking it up, I discovered it was the “Sanctus” of the 1965 Congolese Missa Luba. The song is in many ways a synecdoche of the 1965 rite. It starts off with on French Gregorian foot, quickly introduces drums, and ends with an extremely Congolese bit of improvised singing. And, it must be said, it’s very beautiful.

The poignant song, coming from a country and Church in turmoil, strikes me as emblematic of the crushed hopes of that era. So much was anticipated of Congolese independence, so bitterly contested in the five years since. Already, the forces of reaction were coalescing around an upstart colonel who would soon assume control of the country as its first home-grown dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. And in the Church, those reformers who genuinely tried to bring about a more perfect sense of the divine in the modern world found their position betrayed by a coterie of unorthodox radicals who perverted the sense of the Council’s documents.

Yet we can still hear that bright, fleeting moment of hope in the voices of the Congolese joining their praises to those of the angels.

UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me, correctly, that I have erred in attributing the Missa Luba to 1965 proper. The Mass setting was actually first recorded in 1958. It was in 1965 that the first US release of the album came out. So I suppose that, insofar as we consider its Western reception, the Missa Luba does remain part of the 1965 liturgical landscape. And “The Other Modern” certainly existed in the 1950’s; the aesthetics of 1965 were the culmination of a few decades’ of development.

I suppose my final point, about the parallels in the Church and the Congo, wouldn’t work as well as I had hoped. But at the very least, the Congo in 1958 was indeed a place of tremendous hope for the future. That aspiration manifest in the music was soon crushed by the turmoil of five years of war following Belgium’s official withdrawal in 1960. And the Church? Well, in 1958, I’m not sure anyone really saw what was coming…

A Forgotten Feast

Aparición de San Miguel Arcángel en Monte Gargano

St. Michael, pray for us. (Source)

One of the great victims of the liturgical reform was a whole set of very odd, very particular feasts. The homogenizing, unpleasantly modern mindset of so many reformers back in the 1960’s and 70’s seems to have left no room for anything that could be remotely construed as anachronistic or legendary. Thus vanished the Invention of the Holy Cross, which would have fallen only a few days ago. Another feast lost to us is the one that would, in the old calendar, have come today: the Feast of the Apparition of St. Michael. How wonderful that the Liturgical Providence of God should grant us a feast simply to recall the visible presence of the Angelic Powers in our lives.

Allow me to quote Dom Gueranger at length:

Devotion to St. Michael was sure to spread through the Church, especially after the worship of idols had been banished from the various countries, and men were no longer tempted to give divine honor to creatures. Constantine built a celebrated Church called Michaelion in honor of the great Archangel, and at the time when Constantinople fell under the power of the Turks, there were no fewer than fifteen churches bearing the name of St. Michael, either in the city or the suburbs. In other parts of Christendom the devotion took root only by degrees; and it was through apparitions of the holy Archangel that the faithful were prompted to have recourse to him. These apparitions were local and for reasons which to us might seem of secondary importance; but God, Who from little causes produces great effects, made use of them whereby to excite Christians to have confidence in their heavenly protector. The Greeks celebrate the apparition that took place at Chone, the ancient Colossae in Phrygia. There was in that city a church dedicated to St. Michael and it was frequently visited by a holy man named Archippus, who was violently persecuted by the pagans. One day, when Archippus was at his devotions in his favorite St. Michael’s, his enemies resolved to destroy both him and the church. Hard by ran a brook which flowed into the river Lycus; they turned it aside and flooded the ground on which the church stood. Suddenly there appeared the Archangel St. Michael holding a rod in his hand; the water immediately receded, and flowed into a deep gulf near Colossae where the Lycus empties itself and disappears. The date of this apparition is not certain, but it occurred at the time when pagans were still numerous enough in Colossae to harass the Christians.

Another apparition which encouraged devotion to St. Michael in Italy, took place on Mount Gargano, in Apulia; it is the one honored by today’s Feast. A third happened on Mont Tombe (Mont Saint-Michel; see images at left and at bottom), on the coast of Normandy; it is commemorated on the 16th of October.

The Feast we are keeping today is not so solemn as the one of September 29th; it is, however, more exclusively in honor of St. Michael, inasmuch as the Autumn Feast includes all the choirs of the Angelic hierarchy. The Roman Breviary gives us the following account of the Apparition on Mount Gargano:

That the Blessed Archangel Michael has often appeared to men, is attested both by the authority of Sacred Scripture, and by the ancient tradition of the Saints. Hence, the memory of these apparitions is commemorated in divers places. As heretofore St. Michael was honored by the Synagogue of the Jews as Guardian and Patron, so is he now by the Church of God. A celebrated apparition of the Archangel took place, under the Pontificate of Gelasius I, in Apulia, on the top of Mount Gargano, at whose foot lies the town of Siponto.

A bull belonging to a man who lived on the mountain, having strayed from the herd, was, after much searching, found hemmed fast in the mouth of a cave. One of its pursuers shot an arrow, with a view to rouse the animal by a wound; but the arrow rebounding struck him that sent it. This circumstance excited so much fear in the bystanders and in them who heard of it, that no one dared to go near the cave. The inhabitants of Siponto, therefore, consulted the Bishop; he answered that in order to know God’s will, they must spend three days in fasting and prayer.

At the end of the three days, the Archangel Michael warned the Bishop that the place was under his protection, and that what had occurred was an indication of his will that God should be worshiped there, in honor of himself and the Angels. Whereupon the Bishop repaired to the cave, together with his people. They found it like a church in shape, and began to use it for the celebration of the divine offices (see image below). Many miracles were afterward wrought there. Not long after, Pope Boniface dedicated a church in honor of St. Michael in the great Circus of Rome, on the third of the Kalends of October (September 29), the day on which the Church celebrates the memory of all the Angels. But today’s Feast is kept in commemoration of the Apparition of St. Michael the Archangel.

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The shrine to St. Michael on Monte Gargano (Source)

Yet these stories, reflecting Medieval devotional practice more than any Biblical story or the life of any particular saint, have no place in the new calendar. It is one thing to accept Our Lady of Guadalupe, beloved by millions. It is quite another to countenance a similar story which might only be of local interest. Yet the liturgy is never purely provincial. While there has always been great variety among local rites and practices, the Mind of the Church synthesizes this diversity into an underlying, supernatural harmony. There is only one High Priest, and the liturgy is His eternal prayer as shared by His bride and body, the Church.

The irony of course, is that the reformers seem to have grasped that principal, but then applied it perversely. They acknowledged the universality of the liturgy, but understood it with prejudice against the forest of particularities that had sprung up over the whole Catholic world over the course of nearly two millennia. They could stand on the precedent of Trent and the suppression of most other rites by Quo Primum (1570). Yet that bull at least allowed those liturgies in existence prior to 1370.

Apparition of St Michael the Archangel to Diego Lázaro, Santuario de San Miguel del Milagro, Nativitas, Tlaxcala

Apparition of St Michael the Archangel to Diego Lázaro, Santuario de San Miguel del Milagro, Nativitas, Tlaxcala, Mexico (Source)

It occurs to me that, in removing feasts like the Apparition of St. Michael, we have allowed ourselves to forget many of those little stories and details that were once part of a common Catholic heritage. That forgetting coincided with a general turn away from the supernatural in Western civilization. The middle of the twentieth century saw a retreat from those doctrines of the invisible world that today’s feast (and others like it) commemorate. The result? A proliferation of “new religious movements” seeking the transcendent in a host of spurious, unsound practices. The mumblings of Victorian cranks were garbled together with bastardized Buddhism and reconstructed paganism, garnished with a generous helping of hallucinogens. And that’s just the New Age.

The task that faces us now is to remember all those things we forgot. May St. Michael pray for us in this critical venture.

Another View of the Sacraments in the Eighteenth Century

A while back I produced a short post entitled “A View of the Sacraments in the Age of Enlightenment.” Here I give you another series of similar images, this time from the hand of Giuseppe Maria Crespi, also known as “Lo Spagnuolo.” These paintings from 1712, so reminiscent of Rembrandt, hang in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden. Originally commissioned by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, that towering figure of late Baroque culture, they passed posthumously up to Germany, where they made their way into collection of the Elector of Saxony.

Let me begin by saying that, as with the information in the above paragraph, all of the images can be found at Wikipedia.

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“Baptism.” Crespi’s sparing use of light demonstrates the central conjunction of the scene. Allowing our eyes to wander along the central line of illumination, we follow the arm of the priest pouring water on the head of the outstretched infant to the mother’s rosary-wrapped wrist just beyond. I am convinced that the use of light in all of these images is the key to their meaning. Crespi uses light to illustrate the work of sacramental grace, and darkness to emphasize the mortality, evanescence, and weariness of our ordinary world. “The people in darkness have seen a great light” – thus spake Isaiah.

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“Communion.” The priest’s face is shrouded in darkness, and rightly so. It is not he who offers the bread of life, but Christ in him. Interesting collar, too. Sure looks familiar. Cardinal Ottoboni was patron of the Congregation of the Oratory at Rome for some time, and it’s entirely possible that Crespi would have taken the Oratorians as his model here. Besides that, the setting of the scene is strikingly barren. Crespi’s choice to leave out the probable altar rail lends the scene an intimacy that captures the very heart of the worship here portrayed.

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“Confirmation.” Crespi’s lightest and most colorful piece in the series. The vivid red-orange of the boy’s robes call to mind the tongues of flame that appeared on Pentecost, as does the (relatively) diffuse light bathing the scene. The brightest part of the image is the Bishop’s arm, only just anointing the boy’s head.  The strong predominance of vertical and diagonal lines in this piece only reinforce the sense of descent. Like all the paintings, the scene here is crowded without being cramped. Crespi seems to have penetrated to the deeply ecclesial nature of the sacraments. The sacraments are what give the Christian community its underlying spiritual cohesion and form. To quote De Lubac, “The Eucharist makes the Church.”

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“Confession.” Quite in contrast to “Confirmation,” we come to Crespi’s darkest piece in the series. The overwhelming color is black. Confession is the sacrament that deals most straightforwardly with the reality of sin. The narrow contraction of the light – it comes only from one side, and very weakly. The formal likeness between confessor and penitent reminds us of the condition of sin common to all men. This painting is also the only one in the series where we don’t see a crowd. Only two figures are visible. In the end, we are always “alone with the Alone.”

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“Matrimony.” Perhaps the most human of Crespi’s scenes. But we find unusual notes, things I can’t quite interpret with satisfaction. For a painting of matrimony, we hardly see the couple. Indeed, the bride has almost been swallowed up by the shadows. Nigra sum sed formosa. Perhaps. The priest stands like a pillar of cloud before them, blessing their union. That seems straightforward enough. Yet why is the man on the left holding his hand to his mouth, as if to signal silence? Perhaps because the matter of this sacrament is always properly taken in secret…

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“Ordination.” This composition is a swirling mix of blacks, browns, subtle golds, and occasionally, whites. The point that stands out most is the break in this overall scheme – the youthful, rosy visage of the ordinand, coupled with the slightly ruddy shadows that fall across his hand. What a contrast with the other figures, all of whom are shrouded in darkness and invested with a manifest pallor. Here is an image of youth, a prospect of renewal against a backdrop of dignified decay.

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“Extreme Unction.” At last we come to the end, the place of the skull. It is only fitting that Crespi should choose to depict a collection of Franciscans for this sacrament. Religious life is always a preparation for death. Yet the bright patch of light improbably illuminating the shoulder of the attendant friar contrasts starkly with the shadowy body of the dying father and points to new hope.

Elsewhere: The Prior of Silverstream on Secular Aesthetics

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“Balfron Tower, London,” Erno Goldfinger, 1967. Sometimes, Brutalism has something of the quality of a stage set. It can work then. But most of the time, it is extremely depressing, and one rather wishes that most Brutalist structures were torn down. Imagine what a housing flat like the one picture here says about human life. What an insufferable, dehumanizing worldview is enshrined there! No wonder that our greatest dystopias are all cast in concrete. (Source)

One of the things I like about Vultus Christi is that it’s very un-polemical. So much of the Tradisphere gets bogged down in kvetching about the Pope, or internecine carping, or weird and generally unhelpful screeds about the modern world. One does get rather exhausted of reading that, and most of the time, VC avoids it. But when Dom Mark does raise his voice, his criticism is always tempered with a profound wisdom and grace. Such is the case with yesterday’s sermon at Silverstream, “Make His Praise Glorious.”

The sermon is clearly addressed to the abortion referendum looming in Ireland’s imminent future. But Dom Mark sees the bigger picture of what a “Yes” victory will mean for Irish culture. His argument is not a concatenation of the ordinary pro-life slogans about “a culture of life.” Instead, he makes a broader and, paradoxically, a more incisive point. What is at stake is the place of God in society. The referendum is not ultimately about human life, but human salvation.

There is much to like in the sermon. Of course, I’m very glad to see Dom Mark quoting from Fr. Dalgairns of the London Oratory, one of Newman and Fr. Faber’s early companions. Dalgairns is not much read today, though he was well respected in his own life for his spiritual writings and for his prolific pastoral work.

I was very taken with the aesthetic rhetoric Dom Mark employs. He illustrates the divergence between secular and sacred societies with an appeal to their built environment. Early on in the sermon, he explains the moral meaning of architecture.

New cities are always being constructed on the ruins of the old: these are skillfully planned in view of providing their citizens with every facility and technological advancement: schools, green spaces, clinics, libraries, museums, shopping districts, sports fields, industrial parks, and fitness centres. If, however, in these cities, there is no temple raised to the glory of God, no sanctuary, no altar, no tabernacle containing the irradiating Body of Christ, not only are such places not fit for man, created in the image and likeness of God, such places are dehumanising. In every place where the praise of God is silenced, where churches are closed, where the worship of God is forsaken, man becomes less than human.

It is anthropologically uncontroversial that the spaces we create have an effect on us. Our constructed surroundings in turn construct our souls. And when our ideas about the soul and its final end change, so will our buildings. If you seek an artistic exploration of this notion, I would recommend the two stunning documentary films Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Baraka (1992). Or have a look at Pugin’s Contrasts (1836).

Dom Mark writes of the Christian world:

The builders of cathedrals, churches, and monasteries in former ages of faith had in view only this: to make glorious the praise of God. They understood that by raising edifices for nought but divine worship, and by keeping Sundays and festivals holy unto God, they were, in effect, providing their children, and their children’s children with space to be truly human.

The Christian community makes space (and, indeed, time) for the praise of God. By contrast, the post-Christian culture not only thinks differently, but looks and feels differently as well.

The secular nation descends inexorably into a harsh and dismal unloveliness. Beauty withers in every society that marginalises God and the things of God. Look at the cities constructed by the Godless totalitarian regimes of the last century: monuments of oppression haunted by hopelessness.

The difference between the two can be summed up in that one word: unloveliness. It is a quality that inheres in society as a network of relations between the self and others, between the self and the built environment, and between the whole sum of the people and their built environment. The word succinctly describes an entire process:

1. Spiritual malaise leads to doubt whether the created world can bear eternal meaning.
2. This doubt, often expressed positively as utilitarianism, leads to an unloving and even anti-aesthetic attitude towards the built environment.
3. Subsequently, aesthetic defect characterizes the built environment.
4. The original malaise is aggravated or ossifies.
5. The cycle repeats ad nauseam.

The processional nature of “unloveliness” derives from the threefold connotation of the word it negates, “loveliness.” When we speak of something as “lovely,” we are usually speaking of a moral, spiritual, or aesthetic quality. It is an assessment that lies somewhere between the Good and the Beautiful. The Unlovely is that which expresses, inspires, or provokes something somewhere between the Evil and the Ugly.

As Dom Mark makes clear, we have the duty to choose the Lovely and reject the Unlovely. “The choice of the secular city and its values will lead to barrenness, unloveliness, and emptiness. The choice of the second will lead to the sound of jubilation in the city.” If, as Goethe famously said, architecture is “frozen music,” then we should aim to build towering hymns that lift the soul to God. But the construction of that physical space depends upon the cultural space we make for the sacredincluding human life as such.

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“Le Corbusier’s 1925 ‘Plan Voisin’ planned to raze parts of central Paris and replace them with high-rise towers and highways.” Looks like posterity dodged a bullet there. (Source)

Spring According to Pre-Raphaelites

Spring is here, and the Pre-Raphaelites are going to tell you how to celebrate.

WalterCraneSpringIf you’re not just lying about languidly in a meadow, you’re not really doing it right, are you?

SpringAppleBlossoms.jpgIt is also acceptable to lie there with an audience, preferably one enjoying a lovely picnic. And everyone must be the same gender and should, if at all possible, be dressed in very uncomfortable clothing.

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After you have wallowed in the flowers, be sure to pick some and stare vacantly into the middle distance.

john_william_waterhouse_10_a_song_of_springtime.jpg And of course, you should be arrayed in an artfully disheveled white dress. To get that shabby chic look, you know?

HirelingHolmanHunt.jpgHow you dishevel it is up to you.

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Never let a gust of wind pass without posing.

WalterCraneSignsofSpring
When it comes to flower-staffs, the bigger, the better.

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Only travel with an entourage of little people, so as better to accent your royal mien and bearing.

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Choir boys will also do.

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896
Spring is a lovely time for a refreshing dip.

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You know you’re having a good Spring day when, so enraptured by the little blossoms you’re holding, you don’t even notice your long green scarf blowing away.

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If you happen to find half-naked classical youths asleep in a garden, surrounded by putti and doves, and stuck in an extraordinarily improbable pose, don’t worry. This is normal in Spring.

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Likewise, wild nuns emerge from hibernation and range freely again in the Spring.

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While it’s important to enjoy the season, it’s even more important not to get too caught up in it. This time of the year is when people are most at risk of being sealed into trees by nymphs.

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But surely the best thing about Spring is that it’s no longer Winter!

(Images from here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here)