Pascal and Amoris Laetitia

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This man understood the Society of Jesus. (Source)

Amidst the various scandals roiling the Church right now, let us not forget that the Pope has still not resolved the controversy over communion for the the divorced and remarried. Amoris Laetitia continues to divide Catholics over sacramental discipline and the deeper theology of marriage it concerns.

I study early modern French Catholicism. Recently in my research, I was reading a passage out of Pascal’s Lettres Provinciales that seemed germane to the current debate.

“O father, how these maxims of yours will draw people to your confessionals!”

“Yes,” [the Jesuit] replied, “you would hardly believe what numbers are in the habit of frequenting them; ‘we are absolutely oppressed and overwhelmed, so to speak, under the crowd of our penitents — penitentium numero obruimur’— as is said in The Image of the First Century.”

“I could suggest a very simple method,” said I, “to escape from this inconvenient pressure. You have only to oblige sinners to avoid the proximate occasions of sin; that single expedient would afford you relief at once.”

“We have no wish for such a relief,” rejoined the [Jesuit] monk; “quite the reverse; for, as is observed in the same book, ‘the great end of our Society is to labor to establish the virtues, to wage war on the vices, and to save a great number of souls.’ Now, as there are very few souls inclined to quit the proximate occasions of sin, we have been obliged to define what a proximate occasion is. ‘That cannot be called a proximate occasion,’ says Escobar, ‘where one sins but rarely, or on a sudden transport — say three or four times a year’; or, as Father Bauny has it, once or twice in a month.’ Again, asks this author, ‘what is to be done in the case of masters and servants, or cousins, who, living under the same roof, are by this occasion tempted to sin?’”

“They ought to be separated,” said I.

“That is what he says, too, ‘if their relapses be very frequent: but if the parties offend rarely, and cannot be separated without trouble and loss, they may, according to Suarez and other authors, be absolved, provided they promise to sin no more, and are truly sorry for what is past.’”

This required no explanation, for he had already informed me with what sort of evidence of contrition the confessor was bound to rest satisfied.

“And Father Bauny,” continued the monk, “permits those who are involved in the proximate occasions of sin, ‘to remain as they are, when they cannot avoid them without becoming the common talk of the world, or subjecting themselves to inconvenience.’ ‘A priest,’ he remarks in another work, ‘may and ought to absolve a woman who is guilty of living with a paramour, if she cannot put him away honourably, or has some reason for keeping him — si non potest honeste ejicere, aut habeat aliquam causam retinendi — provided she promises to act more virtuously for the future.’”

“Well, father,” cried I, “you have certainly succeeded in relaxing the obligation of avoiding the occasions of sin to a very comfortable extent, by dispensing with the duty as soon as it becomes inconvenient; but I should think your fathers will at least allow it be binding when there is no difficulty in the way of its performance?”

“Yes,” said the father, “though even then the rule is not without exceptions. For Father Bauny says, in the same place, ‘that any one may frequent profligate houses, with the view of converting their unfortunate inmates, though the probability should be that he fall into sin, having often experienced before that he has yielded to their fascinations. Some doctors do not approve of this opinion, and hold that no man may voluntarily put his salvation in peril to succour his neighbor; yet I decidedly embrace the opinion which they controvert.’”

“A novel sort of preachers these, father! But where does Father Bauny find any ground for investing them with such a mission?”

“It is upon one of his own principles,” he replied, “which he announces in the same place after Basil Ponce. I mentioned it to you before, and I presume you have not forgotten it. It is, ‘that one may seek an occasion of sin, directly and expressly — primo et per se — to promote the temporal or spiritual good of himself or his neighbour.’”

On hearing these passages, I felt so horrified that I was on the point of breaking out.

(Pascal, Lettres Provinciales, X)

Pascal was writing against morally lax Jesuits. Plus ça change.

There are, of course, those who would chide me for citing an avowed Jansenist in our present moment. But I worry that the advocates of the Church’s traditional teaching on communion for the divorced and remarried, and thus for her traditional teaching on marriage generally, are going the way of the Jansenists. They have a Pope set against them who is playing hardball. And a Jesuit, at that. Amoris Laetitia is reaching Unigenitus-level status with regards to popular outrage among the clergy and faithful. The entire discourse of a “smaller, purified Church” that comes up in conversations with “sound” Catholics all has an eerie ring to it. The Jansenists’ Figurist exegesis often spoke of a minority party of “true Christians” set against a corrupt, false church. If you were to open a copy of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques from the 1730’s, you’d find populist polemical language similar to what passes on 1Peter5 or What’s Up With Francis-Church? or The Remnant or LifeSite or Rorate Caeli. If it hasn’t happened already, I wouldn’t be surprised to find any of these sites (or those like them) referring to Amoris Laetitia as “the Abomination in the Holy Place.”

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Unigenitus, or Amoris Laetitia? (Source)

The political divisions among the episcopate also remind me of that tumultuous time. The opposition to Unigenitus, like the opposition to Amoris, goes across cultural barriers. Jansenism was not just a French or Flemish aberration. It spread across Europe and even infiltrated the college of Cardinals. And popularly, much of the Jansenists’ ire was directed at the Jesuits. Likewise, today.

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Destruction of the Abbey of Port-Royal des Champs (Source).

We have our Nuns of Port-Royal in the Franciscans of the Immaculate and the Order of Malta. And what a coincidence that we, like the Jansenists, should valorize four bishops for challenging a Pope!

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The four “apellant” bishops who opposed Unigenitus by an appeal to an ecumenical council. Much like Cardinal Burke, Bishop Soanen of Senez, their leader, was exiled and left without either a see or responsibilities. (Source)

Of course, the whole axis on which this all turns is “frequent communion.” How like Antoine Arnaud does Cardinal Burke appear! Before he started opposing communion for the divorced and remarried, he opposed communion for politicians who publicly dissent from the Church’s teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage. I don’t offer this comparison as a criticism. Indeed, I agree with the Cardinal’s reading of the Canons and the Scriptures. But it is hard not to see the likeness.

There are differences. In the 18th century, there was no real liturgical fracas like what we’ve witnessed since Vatican II (if anything, our age is much worse on this score). The sex abuse scandal of our own days has no parallel in that era. And the very real political dangers posed by the competing “Catholic” monarchs likewise has no modern correspondent (though with a Pope friendly to the liberal order, who knows?). No civil authority is going to suppress sound Catholics – at least, sound on this precise issue – in the way that Louis XIV persecuted the Jansenists.

But the structural and discursive similarities worry me. They should worry you, too. It’s not enough to say “the Gates of Hell shall not prevail” and all that. That’s only eschatological. And in this context, it’s little more than putting one’s head in the sand. Something has to change at the organizational level. I don’t know what that would look like, or who in particular needs to act to ensure the preservation of the Truth. But I hope that we who accept Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage don’t end up convulsing in “another – doubtless very different” cemetery of Saint-Médard.

ADDENDUM: I want to be very clear that I am not making a theological comparison, but a structural, Church-political one. I am not suggesting that the defenders of the Church’s teaching on marriage advance Jansenist principles, but that the shape of the controversy up to now up to this point has developed in a concerning way by placing them in a discursive and political position that approximates that of the later Jansenists. 

Elsewhere: Mother Mectilde de Bar and the Prayer of Devekut

One of the great works of Vultus Christi has been the exposure of many English-speaking Catholics to the spiritual treasures of the continental Benedictine tradition, especially the life and work of Mother Mectilde de Bar. The good nun was a profound mystic of the Eucharist and a spiritual heir to the French School. Anyone with any interest in Benedictine life, Catholicism in early modern France, or spirituality generally should take note.

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Mother Mectilde de Bar (1614-1698), foundress of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. (Source)

I am very happy to refer my readers to an excellent translation of one of Mother Mectilde’s letters of spiritual direction. The translator, an Oblate of Silverstream, has rendered the 17th century French into elegant and very readable English. A job well done!

Here’s a particularly potent excerpt:

The whole of Christian perfection consists in continual attention to Jesus Christ, and a constant adherence or submission to His good pleasure. These two points contain everything, and their faithful practice will lead you to the highest degree of perfection. Blessed is the soul who observes them.

The first point consists in seeing Jesus Christ in everything; in all events and in all our dealings; in such way that this divine sight removes from us the sight of creatures, ourselves, and our interests, in order to see nothing except Jesus Christ. In a word, it is to have the presence of God continually.

The second point consists in being constantly submissive to His holy will; in being so much subject to His good pleasure that we no longer have any return, at least voluntarily, by which we can withdraw from this respectful obedience.

I am reminded, in reading this passage, of a concept in Jewish mysticism called devekut. To practice devekut is to cleave to God constantly, even in the midst of everyday, profane activities. The Rabbis who founded and nurtured Hasidism in the 18th century made it a central feature of their mystical praxis, though the idea has roots in the Temple traditions of the Old Testament (vide Barker 2004, 37). Dr. Margaret Barker notes that, according to the older, priestly understanding of the word “cleaving” in Hebrew, “to cleave” meant quite literally to join. However, this sense was displaced when the Moses-focused Deuteronomist tradition came to ascendance. The new meaning of “cleaving” was, instead, obedience (Ibid. 37). Mother Mectilde has here joined both meanings in a salutary way.

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An icon of the Holy Eucharist, showing Christ the High Priest in the Holy of Holies. (Source)

However, I think she places a bit more emphasis on the first, as the primary and indispensable basis of the second. She goes on to write,

Have Jesus Christ imprinted and carved on the center of your soul. Have him in all the faculties of your mind. May your heart be able to think of and long for nothing except Jesus Christ.  May your whole inclination be to please Him. Attach all your fortunes and your happiness to knowing and loving Jesus Christ.[1] May nothing on earth, however great it seems, prevail in you against the constant union you should have with Jesus Christ. May neither heaven, nor earth, nor hell, nor any power, ever separate you from Him.[2]

She continues on and apostraphizes Divine Love, writing

O Jesus all powerful and all love, work in us these two effects of mercy: attract us by your omnipotence and transform us by your love into Yourself.

O love, O love divine, may you burn in us, and that you may consume in us everything that is contrary to you and opposed to your workings.

O life that is not animated by love, how can you be called life? You are a hideous death, and most terrible.

O pure and holy love of Jesus Christ, do not allow a single moment of my life to be spent without love; make me die and throw me into hell a thousand times rather than not to love Jesus Christ.

The first line here is the key; this is the loving and even conjugal language of devekut, not simple obedience. But obedience is implied as the sustaining force and natural result of such attentive love.

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A hesychast at prayer. (Source)

It seems appropriate to me that Mother Mectilde, a Benedictine, should advocate for this kind of “cleaving” prayer, vigilant love in every moment. It has always been the task of the monastic throughout history to preserve this kind of remembrance of God that is itself a form of His presence in the heart. Precisely this “cleaving” constitutes the positive good underlying hesychasm in the East, but it can also be found in many monastic writers of both East and West. Mother Mectilde is not speaking alone. Indeed, she expresses the perennial Wisdom that has always infused the monastic life and made it fruitful.

Read the whole thing over at Vultus Christi.

A Carmelite Daughter of St. Philip: The Venerable Serafina di Dio, O.C.D.

One of my favorite essays to write on this blog so far has been my study of the way that St. Philip Neri embodied certain Benedictine qualities. In that piece, I argue that sometimes we can gain a deeper understanding of a saint by looking at their likenesses with saints of a different religious family or by the influence of other saints in their lives. As an extension of that essay, I’d like to introduce my readers to a Venerable whom they have probably never heard of, one who followed St. Philip in a very Benedictine spirit: the Venerable Serafina di Dio, O.C.D.

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Ven. Serafina di Dio (1621-1699), Neapolitan Carmelite mystic. (Source)

The Life of a Mystic

Prudenza Pisa was born in the Kingdom of Naples in 1621. She clashed with her father at a young age when she refused to marry the young man he had chosen as her husband. She also cut her hair and donned pentiental garb. These actions did not go over well, and she soon found herself expelled from the household. Prudenza resided during this rather fraught period in what was essentially the family chicken coop. Yet she grew closer to her mother, who brought her meals secretly. Prudenza saw these sufferings as an opportunity for growth in trust of God. She also set herself to the good works of visiting the sick. In the Neapolitan Plagues of 1656, she continued her ministry even as the illness claimed her beloved mother. Her behavior at this terrible juncture was edifying:

Seraphina prepared her mother for death and actually closed her eyes when she died on August 5th 1656. Christian burial was not allowed during the plague. With her own hands, she dug a shallow grave in the backyard and personally buried her mother.

Yet her active life was soon to draw to a close. One of her uncles, a prominent priest, died of the same plague. He had been planning to found a convent of enclosed nuns on Capri. She carried on this noble work after his departure. She gathered together various companions from Naples and, on 29th of May, 1661, took the habit of the Discalced Carmelites at Naples Cathedral. It was then that she took the name of Serafina of God. Later that year, the community moved to Capri. Their residence soon proved inadequate, and they constructed a much larger monastery dedicated to the Most Holy Savior. Mother Serafina’s leadership bore fruit in another six Carmelite convents in the Kingdom of Naples, a remarkable flourishing clearly drawing its power from the Holy Ghost.

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The (very Dominican) arms of Pope Benedict XIII, friend of Ven. Serafina di Dio (Source)

Ven. Serafina was not without trials. Although she wrote an attack on Quietism, she was herself accused of this noxious heresy. For six years, the Inquisition conducted an investigation into her writings and activities. For two, she was confined to her cell without the benefit of Holy Communion. But at last, her name was cleared, in no small part because of the intervention of her friend, Archbishop Vincenzo Maria Orsini, the future Pope Benedict XIII.

There can be little doubt that these troubles arose from within her own religious family. Although Mother Serafina was entirely blameless in conduct, her manner of spiritual leadership won her many enemies among her more lax daughters. Perhaps some of the trouble could have been anticipated from the fact that her recruits were customarily drawn from the ranks of the Neapolitan aristocracy, not a class generally known for its ascetic rigor. The Carmelites treated their foundress poorly. For example, while Serafina was ill in her confinement, she begged to see some of the sisters. They did not come. Yet the patience with which she bore these final trials remains exemplary. As one biographer notes, “Two days before she died she asked the Prioress to look after the sisters who had been so contrary to her, making excuses for their behavior.” This mercy converted the hard of heart, for, as the same writer says, “After her death on March 17, 1699, some of the sisters who were most against her became some of the most enthustiastic promoters of her Cause.”

Spiritual Daughter of St. Philip Neri

An heir of the Tridentine reform, the Ven. Serafina was a great admirer of St. Teresa of Avila, whom she endeavored to emulate in all things. She was a prolific writer, composing at least 2,173 letters and enough theological writing to fill 22 books. Some of her topics included:

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Ven. Serafina writing (Source).

-the prayer of faith
-mental prayer
-the love of God and the practice of the divine presence
-the common life
-conformity to the will of God.

Alas, I don’t believe any of these have been translated into English. Perhaps some intrepid early modernist will someday render these works into the Anglo-Saxon tongue.

Serafina was also a visionary mystic. She went about life with a constant ability to fall into meditation. In Serafina’s own words:

“…Anything I looked at I was able to turn into a meditation… When I saw it raining, I thought of the refreshment which the rain brought to the earth and that without it the earth would be arid. I would say: ‘If the water of divine grace did not fall on the soul, it would dry up without providing the fruits of good works.’ … The sight of fish swimming in the sea made me remember how the saints are immersed in God… And in such wise everything, even the slightest things, served me for my spiritual nourishment.”

The greatest misfortunes could not turn her from the praise of God. For in all things, she perceived the benevolent Providence of God. Her unfailing rule was that “All that God did and allowed was beautiful, good, ordered for our good.” Even the terrible things in life thus became for Serafina an occasion of magnification and blessing.

Serafina was also a visionary mystic. At one point, “She was so overwhelmed with her vision of the Godhead that she wondered what else could be reserved for her in heaven.” The experiences she was granted were extraordinary, though she took pains to keep them discreet. Yet we do have letters attesting to some of her ecstasies.

One figure who emerges as particularly important in her religious life is St. Philip Neri. The Oratorian Fr. Francesco Antonio Agnelli tells us that she honored St. Philip by, for instance, devoutly kissing the feet of the crucifix thirty-three times in his honor; she was repaid for this act of love with a vision of the glorified St. Philip prostrate and kissing the feet of Jesus thirty-three times in her name (Agnelli 194).

Serafina’s spiritual father was Fr. Vincenzo Avinatri of the Naples Oratory. She wrote him letters describing the visions she had of St. Philip. In one such letter, she reports that

“I saw the Saint, with the great Mother of God, in a flame of fire, and surrounded with light…with a sweet countenance, he told me many beautiful things…He showed me what his sons ought to be, and the dignity of the Congregation, made, so to speak, in the likeness of God and of the three Divine Persons, and especially of the Person of the Holy Spirit…Without speaking, he had explained to me the perfection we must have in order to be sons of light. It would be a monstrous thing if fire generated snow, if light brought forth darkness, if crystal produced mud…How much greater wonder would it be, if in any of the sons of St. Philip, who are called sons of the Holy Spirit, there should be any defect!” (qtd. in Agnelli 195-96)

In another vision that came to her on the vigil of St. Philip’s day, she was carried way into a heavenly rapture and saw the Saint aflame with a supernal light. And in view of St. Philip, she saw her own heart on fire, as well. But it did not glow as brightly as his; therefore, she prayed to the Saint that she might receive a more perfect and ample share of Divine Love. As Agnelli describes it,

Then the Saint united his heart with hers, and thus united they sent forth a great flame; she felt so much love that she could not express it, and the Saint invited her to rejoice in the presence of the Lord, and to sing His praises, desiring her to repeat with him these words, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Magnus Dominus et laudabilis nimis [Holy, holy, holy, great is the Lord and worthy of all praise], adding that it is impossible to find in the most devout Canticles words more pleasing to God. (Agnelli 194-95).

She was thus adopted by the saint as a kind of daughter in the Spirit. She also looked upon Oratorians as her own sons. This spiritual affinity was later attested by a physical resemblance with St. Philip. When an autopsy was conducted on Mother Serafina’s body, the examiners found signs of transverberation in her heart.

It may seem odd for a visionary to become so friendly with St. Philip and his sons. After all, St. Philip himself was notorious for his skepticism when it came to visions. He had treated the Ven. Ursula Benincasa with unrelenting verbal abuse to test her inspiration – a test she passed, even if the holy man never quite came around to endorsing her. St. Philip taught that, “As for those who run after visions, dreams, and the like, we must lay hold of them by the feet and pull them to the ground by force, lest they should fall into the devil’s net.” Though a man of tremendous supernatural gifts himself, he knew that the spiritual world was a minefield of dangers. False visionaries abounded in his day, and his prudent words have retained their perennial wisdom down into our own era.

To properly understand the nature of Ven. Serafina’s visionary mysticism, and why we can properly say it breathes of a Philippine spirit, we must look at it in the context of her leadership of a Carmelite monastery.

A Liturgical Mysticism

The troubles in Serafina’s life began because of her governance. As one biographer has it,

As often happens, Sr. Seraphina’s strongest talents and graces became her heaviest crosses. In her foundations she shared her convictions about religious life with her sisters. She firmly believed that the best guarantee of authenticity of one’s religious experience was a dogged faithfulness to the traditional forms. She was immersed in the church’s liturgy, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Divine Office, the liturgical year, and the feasts of the Saints. She was often led to intimate communion with Christ Jesus at the liturgy beginning with the midnight office. She also stressed the need for silence and solitude as requisites for prayer. [emphasis mine – RTY]

Her tenacious devotion to the traditional forms of worship and to the great prayer of the Church, the Liturgy and Divine Office, shows that the Ven. Serafina was in every way a monastic. Indeed, these salutary measures evince a Benedictine sensibility.

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An 18th century portrait of the Ven. Serafina di Dio. Note the prominent place of the Blessed Sacrament in this composition. (Source)

Her ecstasies were not a superfluous and shallow add-on to this liturgical life. She built the house of her prayer upon the rock of tradition, and it was illumined with the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost.

Serafina’s mystical life was tied to her experience of the liturgical calendar. For instance, any of her most profound encounters with St. Philip took place on the vigil and day of his feast (Agnelli 194-95). A cynic would see in this timebound quality a mark of the merely human dimension of religion, a fine example of confirmation bias. But those who have learned of divine things will discover a deeper reality. In Serafina they will see a soul that has grown attuned to the Wisdom of God, made manifest in time through the Incarnation of Christ and the Liturgy of the Church.

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High Altar of the Chiesa Santissimo Salvatore, Capri. Although it has not been a Carmelite monastery since Napoleonic times, this is the altar where the Ven. Serafina would have received communion. (Source)

These are quintessentially sound foundations for the spiritual life. Her strictly liturgical and monastic way engendered serious opposition among her daughters, but it also gave her the strength to bear that opposition with true Christian patience. One can only imagine the terrible suffering that two years without the Blessed Sacrament must have inflicted on such a soul. Yet, by grounding herself in the Liturgy, she was able to nourish that innate trust in Providence already evident in her earliest days. Surely, that sustained her in the darkest days of her old age.

The Long Road to Sainthood

It seems somehow appropriate that, as an adopted daughter of St. Philip, the Ven. Serafina should not yet have been canonized. Many of his spiritual children have had a similar fate. Witness the stalled cases of Ven. Cardinal Cesare Baronius, Bl. Juvenal Ancina, Bl. Anthony Grassi, and Bl. Sebastian Valfre, just to name a few of the many early modern Oratorians who have not yet reached the highest altars of the Church.

Still, we can pray that this Carmelite mystic will one day be recognized as the saint she was. Let us beg her intercession and emulate her profound devotion to the Liturgy of the Church.

UPDATE: A Carmelite friend pointed out to me that Ven. Serafina was in fact not subject to the jurisdiction of either Carmelite order, essentially running independent Carmelite conservatories of oblates in the Discalced habit, following an adaptation of St. Teresa’s constitutions. She was a sort of Carmelite version of St. Francesca Romana. More info can be found in the works of Smet. As such, any use of the Carmelite letters after her name may be inappropriate, but given a) the unusual nature of the case, and b) the difficulty of changing my title and thus invalidating links, I have decided to keep my text as is and merely add this disclaimer.

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May the Ven. Serafina di Dio pray for us! (Source)

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.