The rather romantic image of St. Philip Neri as always laughing, joking, and cheerful is a far cry from reality, as anyone who has immersed himself in the saint’s biographies and hagiographies will know. St. Philip, well-versed in the spirituality of the Desert Fathers, displayed a profound and salutary disillusionment with the charms of the world. Well did he know the verse that reads, “Adulterers, know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of this world, becometh an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
St. Philip expressed this mépris du monde in a little-known song based on famous verses in Ecclesiastes. It is one of the few writings allegedly from his hand to have been preserved. While the attribution remains uncertain, the opinions expressed below conform to the Maxims of the Saint, especially his frequent attempts to provoke thoughts of death. He was known to approach worldly young men and ask what they desired. At each answer, he would like Socrates say, “And then? And then?” leading eventually on to death. At which point, many souls realized the vanity of their desires and subsequently converted. St. Philip also used to say, “The things of this world do not remain constantly with us, for if we do not leave them before we actually die, in death at least we all infallibly depart as empty-handed as we came.” And he exhorts all Christian souls, “We must not be behind time in doing good; for death will not be behind his time.”
The song can be found in an appendix to Fr. Faber’s English translation of The School of Saint Philip Neri by Giuseppe Crispino, whence I have transcribed it. The original Italian text may be seen there as well. I offer it here to my readers who many not have access to this rather obscure book for their edification and private devotions to the Saint.
Recently I got in a small argument on Twitter about the exact nature of Jansenist rigorism. It was pointed out by a friend, citing the estimable work of John J. Conley SJ, that Mère Angélique strictly forbade instruction in singing and dancing at the Port-Royal schools. Her comments on this point, taken from a letter to Madame de Bellisi, are as follows:
Singing, however innocent people like to find it, is very corrupt in its charming words, which are full of poison beneath their decent appearance. The same problem exists in simple airs where a false joy and foolishness are found. As for dancing, beyond its evil there is madness. Finally, my dear sister, according to the laws of the gospel, the morals of Christians must be as pure as they were at the beginning of the church.
Mère Angélique Arnauld, Abbess of Port-Royal Quoted in John Conley, Adoration and Annihilation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009) pg. 87
Conley goes on to point out that this attitude represents the rigorist discipline of the Jansenists, especially in contrast to the Jesuit schools where theatre, song, and dance were important elements of the curriculum.
He’s not wrong. Certainly, the Abbess’s words on singing are a bit severe, to put it mildly. Yet while Conley does a good job setting this opinion in the context of the seventeenth-century French church, he fails to consider the broader and deeper context of Catholic moral teaching. This point matters insofar as it helps us assess the extent to which we can actually classify Jansenists – and the Port-Royal community in particular – as “rigorists.” What was the traditional teaching of the Fathers, Doctors, Saints, and Councils on dancing? Can we discern a general stream of teaching here? If so, what does it say, and how does it compare with the teaching of Mère Angélique?
To make a tentative answer to this question, I have compiled a brief florilegium of quotes on dancing. Where I have specific textual citations, I have included them. I will also preface this florilegium by saying that I don’t necessarily agree with these authorities in all cases. I am not a Puritan at heart – though I did once play Reverend Shaw More in a High School production of Footloose. Quite apart from that, there is a problematic gender dynamic here; the authorities quoted below are much more attentive to women dancing than men (though once again, this is perhaps one reason that Mère Angélique, a learned nun responsible for the moral instruction of an early modern Catholic girls’ school, took the position she did). The point here is to ascertain whether or not the position of Mère Angélique was a reasonable interpretration of longstanding Catholic teachings, or whether it was a truly “rigorist” aberration and an innovation with heretical tendencies.
With those caveats, let us begin.
The Fathers of the Church
“For there are excessive banquetings, and subtle flutes which provoke to lustful movements, and useless and luxurious anointings, and crowning with garlands. With such a mass of evils do you banish shame; and ye fill your minds with them, and are carried away by intemperance, and indulge as a common practice in wicked and insane fornication.” – St. Justin Martyr, Discourse to the Greeks, Ch. IV
“Since, then, all passionate excitement is forbidden us, we are debarred from every kind of spectacle.” – Tertullian, The Shows, Ch. XVI
“Are we not, in like manner, enjoined to put away from us all immodesty? On this ground, again, we are excluded from the theatre, which is immodesty’s own peculiar abode, where nothing is in repute but what elsewhere is disreputable.” – Tertullian, The Shows, Ch. XVII. While this florilegium will not go deeply into the (extensive) Patristic condemnation of the theater, I will note that the nuns and solitaires of Port-Royal also adhered to this neglected teaching. Their position caused some tensions with one of their most famous students, the celebrated playwright Jean Racine.
“Now the pomp of the devil is the madness of theaters and horse-races, and hunting, and all such vanity: from which that holy man praying to be delivered says unto God, Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity. Be not interested in the madness of the theatre, where thou wilt behold the wanton gestures of the players, carried on with mockeries and all unseemliness, and the frantic dancing of effeminate men.” – St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 19.6
“Whence comes the dance? Who has taught it to Christians? Truly, neither Peter, nor Paul, nor John, nor any man filled with the Spirit of God; but the hellish dragon!” – St. Ephrem the Syrian
“With unkempt hair, clothed in bodices and hopping about, they dance with lustful eyes and loud laughter; as if seized by a kind of frenzy they excite the lust of the youths…With harlots’ songs they pollute the air and sully the degraded earth with their feet in shameful postures.” – St. Basil of Caesarea
“There ought then to be the joy of the mind, conscious of right, not excited by unrestrained feasts, or nuptial concerts, for in such modesty is not safe, and temptation may be suspected where excessive dancing accompanies festivities. I desire that the virgins of God should be far from this. For as a certain teacher of this world has said: “No one dances when sober unless he is mad.” Now if, according to the wisdom of this world, either drunkenness or madness is the cause of dancing, what a warning is given to us amongst the instances mentioned in the Divine Scriptures, where John, the forerunner of Christ, being beheaded at the wish of a dancer, is an instance that the allurements of dancing did more harm than the madness of sacrilegious anger.” – St. Ambrose, Concerning Virgins, Book III, Ch. 5.25
“What say you, holy women? Do you see what you ought to teach, and what also to unteach your daughters? She dances, but she is the daughter of an adulteress. But she who is modest, she who is chaste, let her teach her daughter religion, not dancing. And do you, grave and prudent men, learn to avoid the banquets of hateful men. If such are the banquets, what will be the judgment of the impious?” – St. Ambrose, Concerning Virgins, Book III, Ch. 6.31.
“Our rest is from evil works, theirs from good; for it is better to plough than to dance.” – St. Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 92, Paragraph 2.
“Avoid also indecent spectacles: I mean the theatres and the pomps of the heathens; their enchantments, observations of omens, soothsayings, purgations, divinations, observations of birds; their necromancies and invocations….. You are also to avoid their public meetings, and those sports which are celebrated in them….. Abstain, therefore, from all idolatrous pomp and state, all their public meetings, banquets, duels, and all shows belonging to demons.” – Apostolic Constitutions, Book II, Paragraph 62.
“For where dancing is, there is the evil one. For neither did God give us feet for this end, but that we may walk orderly: not that we may behave ourselves unseemly, not that we may jump like camels.” – St. John Chyrsostom, Homily 48 on St. Matthew’s Gospel, Ch. IV.
“Christians, when they attend weddings, must not join in wanton dances, but modestly dine or breakfast, as is becoming to Christians.” – Council of Laodicea, Canon LIII
“Since therefore the more these things contribute to usefulness and honor in the Church of God, so the more zealously must they be observed, the holy council ordains that those things which have in the past been frequently and wholesomely enacted by the supreme pontiffs and holy councils concerning adherence to the life, conduct, dress, and learning of clerics, as also the avoidance of luxury, feastings, dances, gambling, sports, and all sorts of crime and secular pursuits, shall in the future be observed under the same or greater penalties to be imposed at the discretion of the ordinary.” – Council of Trent, Session XXII, Decree Concerning Reform, Ch. I
While I have not been able to find the specific quotes from medieval councils, I appeal to historian Ralph G. Giordano, who has helpfully summarized high medieval ecclesiastical discipline on this matter. He writes, “Actually, during the thirteenth century, all social dancing as part of religious ritual was eliminated from the Catholic Church. In 1215, the Lateran Council declared ‘lascivious’ dancing a sin requiring confession to a parish priest. In 1227, the Council of Trier specifically excluded ‘three-step and ring dances.’ Similar edicts were issued by the Synod of Cahors (1206), the bishop of Paris (1209), a Hungarian church council (1279), and the Council of Wurzburg (1298). All the edicts upheld the common decision to prohibit dancing in any churchyards, the churches, or as part of religious processions” (See Giordano, pp. 49-50).
Early Modern Saints
“Dancing, so dangerous to Christian morals, should be banished entirely by the faithful, as it originates many sins against purity, and causes extravagances, evil deeds, and assassinations.” – St. Charles Borromeo
Another saint who will appear later in this list also notes that St. Charles Borromeo once gave someone (probably a cleric) a penance for dancing that lasted three years, and said he would excommunicate the sinner if he ever danced again.
“Believe me, my daughter, these frivolous amusements [balls and dances] are for the most part dangerous; they dissipate the spirit of devotion, enervate the mind, check true charity, and arouse a multitude of evil inclinations in the soul, and therefore I would have you very reticent in their use.” – St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Ch. XXXIII. I have discussed St. Francis’s notable aversion towards dancing before.
I could certainly end my florilegium here and prove the point. However, for good measure, let’s continue to see if Port-Royal represents a particularly rigorous vision of dancing even in light of subsequent Catholic development.
St. Louis de Montfort, who clashed with the Jansenists in his own day, managed to agree with the Abbess of Port-Royal on this point. He writes, “Soldiers join together in an army to overcome their enemies; wicked people often get together for parties of debauchery and dancing, and evil spirits join forces in order to make us lose our souls.” – St. Louis de Montfort, The Secret of the Rosary, Forty-Sixth Rose.
In the very same chapter, the Saint continues, “Before the Holy Rosary took root in these small towns and villages, dances and parties of debauchery went on all the time; dissoluteness, wantonness, blasphemy, quarrels, and feuds flourished.” He takes it as self-evident that dancing is an occasion of sin.
But lest we fall into the trap of attributing this attitude merely to Gallic severity, let us turn our eyes south to Naples. When we consider that famously anti-Jansenist (even allegedly laxist!) moral theologian and Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Liguori, what do we find?
“Parents should prohibit their children from all games, which bring destruction on their families and on their own souls, and also dances, suggestive entertainment, and certain dangerous conversations and parties of pleasures. A father should remove from his house books of romances, which pervert young persons, and all bad books which contain pernicious maxims, tales of obscenity, or of profane love.” – St. Alphonsus Liguori, “Letter to Parents”
St. Anthony Mary Claret, by no means a Jansenist, claimed that “The Devil invented balls for girls to be lost, and extended them throughout the world like an immense net in order to catch the young people and submit them to his tyrannical domination.”
And returning to France, we come to the Curé d’Ars. What has this patron of parish priests, this great and ever-to-be-esteemed shepherd of souls, this jewel of the ultramontane church to say on our chosen subject?
St. Jean-Marie Vianney was absolutely resolute in his opposition to dancing of any kind. He even set up a statue of St. John the Baptist under an arch in his church, whereat he painted the words, “My head was the price of a dance.” He preached against it vehemently on more than one occasion. I shall here select only one of many, many warnings he gave against dancing (which he seems to have taken as almost intrinsically sinful, given the number of sins to which it gave occasion) in his sermons.
“St. Augustine tells us that those who go to dances truly renounce Jesus Christ in order to give themselves to the Devil. What a horrible thing that is! To drive out Jesus Christ after having received Him in your hearts! “Today,” says St. Ephraim, “they unite themselves to Jesus Christ and tomorrow to the Devil.” Alas! What a Judas is that person who, after receiving our Lord, goes then to sell Him to Satan in these gatherings, where he will be reuniting himself with everything that is most vicious! And when it comes to the Sacrament of Penance, what a contradiction in such a life! A Christian, who after one single sin should spend the rest of his life in repentance, thinks only of giving himself up to all these worldly pleasures! A great many profane the Sacrament of Extreme Unction by making indecent movements with the feet, the hands and the whole body, which one day must be sanctified by the holy oils. Is not the Sacrament of Holy Order insulted by the contempt with which the instructions of the pastor are considered? But when we come to the Sacrament of Matrimony, alas! What infidelities are not contemplated in these assemblies? It seems then that everything is admissible. How blind must anyone be who thinks there is no harm in it…The Council of Aix-la-Chapelle forbids dancing, even at weddings. And St. Charles Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan, says that three years of penance were given to someone who had danced and that if he went back to it, he was threatened with excommunication. If there were no harm in it, then were the Holy Fathers and the Church mistaken? But who tells you that there is no harm in it? It can only be a libertine, or a flighty and worldly girl, who are trying to smother their remorse of conscience as best they can. Well, there are priests, you say, who do not speak about it in confession or who, without permitting it, do not refuse absolution for it. Ah! I do not know whether there are priests who are so blind, but I am sure that those who go looking for easygoing priests are going looking for a passport which will lead them to Hell. For my own part, if I went dancing, I should not want to receive absolution not having a real determination not to go back to dancing…Alas! How many young people are there who since they have been going to dances do not frequent the Sacraments, or do so only to profane them! How many poor souls there are who have lost therein their religion and their faith! How many will never open their eyes to their unhappy state except when they are falling into Hell!” – St. Jean-Marie Vianney, a sermon against dancing.
Lest I be accused of failing to adequately account for the context of these disparate condemnations, I would note that the Catholic solution is almost always to say “both-and,” not “either-or.” We have seen the saints attack a wide variety of dances, including but not limited to a) pagan rituals, b) secular spectacles, c) dances in Church precincts, d) dancing in general, e) dancing at weddings, and f) dancing between young men and women. These are not mutually exclusive.
Once again, I don’t pretend to agree with all of these warnings. I have often enjoyed myself at dances. Morris Dancing was one of the most charming English customs I discovered when I moved to Oxford. I have very fond memories of going to the ballet, both as a child and as an adult. And I have written very highly of the artistic use of dance in, for example, The New Pope.
But the point at stake is not my opinion, but rather how we evaluate the Jansenists. Are Mère Angélique’s words in any way divergent from the spirit of these diverse condemnations? I should think that the only reasonable answer is no. The reforming Abbess of Port-Royal, ever the daughter of austere St. Bernard, may have seemed a rigorist in a century when this teaching was largely unfashionable. Keep in mind, too, that the abbey she reformed – Port-Royal des Champs – had for several decades before been known for its laxity, including an annual carnival ball. That past state of affairs shaped Angélique’s pastoral concern here, and if she over-reacted a bit (especially in her comments on singing), it was with the memory of her personal experience of those abuses.
But even keeping all that in mind, I can find nothing in her words about dancing that sets her apart from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. If we condemn her, how much more must we condemn the Curé d’Ars, so much closer to our own more tolerant age!
Conley’s book is very good. I don’t mean to dispute his broader argument. I am not even making a point principally addressed to academic historians of Jansenism, who will not be surprised by what they have read here. What I mean to suggest, however, is that in general we (Catholics at large) are too hasty to judge the Jansenists by anachronistic standards that do not actually conform to our own moral tradition, a tradition with elements that are genuinely more rigorous than the practice of Catholicism we know today. And a reconsideration of those elements – whether we end up adopting them or, in prudence, choose not to – is a helpful exercise in becoming more self-reflective and more historically-grounded as Catholics.
I must refer my readers to a new recording of some Gregorian chant from Silverstream Priory. The beautiful responsory, Media Vita, is very timely during this pandemic. Here is the translation, passed on by the Prior:
In the midst of life we are in death; from whom shall we seek help, save Thee, O Lord? Who for our sins art justly angered. * Holy God, Holy mighty One, Holy merciful Saviour, hand us not over to the bitterness of death.
1. In Thee our fathers hoped; they hoped, and Thou hast liberated them. * Holy God, Holy mighty One, Holy merciful Saviour, hand us not over to the bitterness of death.
2. To Thee our fathers cried; they cried and were not confounded. * Holy God, Holy mighty One, Holy merciful Saviour, hand us not over to the bitterness of death.
3. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. * Holy God, Holy mighty One, Holy merciful Saviour, hand us not over to the bitterness of death.
Translation of the Media Vita
I know I speak for the monks when I encourage you to give it a listen and take some comfort from this ancient prayer of the Church in a time when death is all around.
I would particularly note the highly idiosyncratic harmonic arrangement used here. I have not heard any other renditions of this chant like it. I grew up listening to the Benedictines of Santo Domingo do Silos, and although I like their hauntingly pure Media Vita, the Silverstream version has a complexity and depth that feels very different, if just as moving.
The accompanying film is also of very high quality. I have known the monks of Silverstream for six years. This is by far the best video I’ve seen from them. It does a good job capturing the peculiar beauty of that monastery in Springtime, as well as the powerful sense of holiness that radiates throughout the house and grounds from the Blessed Sacrament. And for those who care about such things, there’s a lovely conical requiem chasuble from 3:23 on.
Give it a listen, and please consider supporting the monks through a donation or by shopping at their excellent online store. The monks are streaming their masses and some of their offices throughout this crisis, and I recommend following them for what will no doubt be a stirring and holy Paschal Triduum (albeit at a distance).
Earlier this week, I went to the Birmingham Oratory for the Feast of Bl. John Henry Newman. Fr. Ignatius Harrison, the Provost, was kind enough to open up the Oratory house to me. I must offer him my tremendous thanks for his hospitable willingness to let me see such an incredible (and, it must be said, holy) place. Likewise, I thank Br. Ambrose Jackson of the Cardiff Oratory for taking time out of his busy schedule to give me what was an extraordinarily memorable tour. I went away from the experience with a rekindled devotion to Cardinal Newman.
Your humble servant in Cardinal Newman’s own library. Photo taken by Br. Ambrose Jackson of the Cardiff Oratory. You can see Cardinal Newman’s violin case on the lower shelf of his standing desk at right.
There were many striking and beautiful sights at the Oratory – not the least of which was the Pontifical High Mass in the Usus Antiquior, celebrated by His Excellency, Bishop Robert Byrne. Even from so short an experience, I can tell that the Birmingham Oratory is one of the places where Catholicism is done well, where the Beauty of Holiness is made manifest for the edification of all the faithful. I walked away from that Mass feeling drawn upwards into something supernal, something far beyond my ken. This place that so palpably breathes the essence of Cardinal Newman is, as it were, an island of grace and recollection amidst a world—and, sadly, a Church—so often inimical to things of the spirit.
The Birmingham Oratory with the relics of the Blessed Cardinal displayed for veneration by the faithful. This photo was taken by the author shortly before Mass.
Yet amidst all this splendor, I found myself peculiarly drawn to one very quiet, very easy-to-miss relic. It lies in the little chapel to St. Philip Neri to the left of the altar; in this placement, one can see the influence of the Chiesa Nuova on Newman and his sons, who modeled their house’s customs on Roman models. And so it is only appropriate to find relics of St. Philip there in that small and holy place, so evocative of the great father’s final resting place.
The altar of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham Oratory. Photo taken by the author.
The collection of relics in the chapel are mostly second-class. These are not pieces of the body, but materials that touched St. Philip either in his life or after his death. One of these small items spoke to me in an especially strong way.
The little grey pouch you see to the left is St. Philip’s spectacle case. There is nothing terribly remarkable about it. It may not even be entirely intact, for all I know. A visible layer of dust covers the case, and a hard-to-read, handwritten label is all that identifies its use and provenance. No one comes to the Birmingham Oratory to see what once held St. Philip’s glasses. But of all the glorious relics I saw that day —some encrusted in gold, some taken from rare and holy men, some evoking the perilous lives of saints who lived in a more heroic age—it was this humble artifact that most fired my imagination.
A spectacle case is no great thing. It does not shift the balance of empires or change the course of history. But humility and nobility are close cousins all the same. Here we come upon St. Philip in his quotidian life. A saint so marvelously strange, so crammed with the supernatural, so flame-like in darting from one miracle to another, nevertheless bent his fingers to the perfectly ordinary task of opening this case and taking out his spectacles so that he might see just a little better. It is a true maxim that grace builds upon nature. We have been told of St. Philip’s many graces. Here we find him in his nature; frail and imperfect and in need of just a little aid, so like our own.
The supernatural never erases the natural, and God is never more glorified than in our weakness. The hands that took up this case and opened it and drew forth its contents, perhaps a little fumblingly from time to time, are the very same thaumaturgic hands that lifted a prince out of death and Hell so that he might make his final confession. We know the story of the miracle. How rarely do we ponder the everyday conditions of its operation! How rarely do we consider those hands in their ordinary life.
There is a tendency with St. Philip—as with many saints, and with Our Lord Himself—to reduce his life to one or two features. Some would make him an avuncular chap, always happy to laugh and thoroughly pleasant to be around, a jokester, a picture of joy and friend to all. On the other hand, we can get lost in the extraordinarily colorful miracles that mark St. Philip’s life, losing him in a fog of pious pictures and pablum. Neither captures his essence. The true middle way is to maintain a healthy sense of the bizarre—an approach that recognizes the extraordinary in-breaking of the supernatural precisely because it appreciates the ordinary material of St. Philip’s day-to-day existence. It was this view that Fr. Ignatius himself recommended, though perhaps with a greater emphasis on the “weird,” in his homily delivered last St. Philip’s day.
I was reminded of this double reality when I saw St. Philip’s spectacle case. Prosaic relics carry this two-fold life within them more vividly than those upon which our ancestors’ piety has elaborated in glass and gold. Even Cardinal Newman’s violin case is not so markedly dual in this way; after all, every instrument belongs to that human portion of the supernatural we call “art.” Music, paintings, and other aesthetic forms all lift the human soul out of itself and into another world. In some ways, they are cousins both to Our Lady and to the Sacraments, God’s masterpieces of the sensible creation. Yet a spectacle case—how utilitarian. How plain. How merely functional. There is no poetry in a spectacle case. One can imagine writing a poem about a violin—the sinuous form of the wood almost suggests it, and more so when it carries a connection with so great a man as Newman—but a spectacle case? Drab as this one is, its beauty comes only from the story it tells, from the life it once served, from the little help it gave its owner in his acquisition of beatitude.
Too often we wish to be God’s violins. In our quest for holiness, we wish to be admired, to cast our voice abroad, to give and seek beauty. These are not necessarily unworthy goals. But they are not the most important thing. Too infrequently do we turn our mind to the spectacle case. All too rarely do we seek our holiness in the gentle, quiet, everyday task of being useful, unnoticed, and present to God precisely when He needs us.
St. Philip knew how to be both, when he needed to be. May we learn to be like him in this as in so many respects.
The effigy of Holy Father Philip, Chapel of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham Oratory. Photo taken by author.
Occasionally I like to present obscure poetry here, especially by unusual figures. My readers will no doubt be well aware of my love of the bizarre and morbid. Here are two extremely rare poems from that equally strange poet, Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock, an Anglo-Baltic aristocrat who dabbled in just about every religion known to man, kept a menagerie of wild animals at his Estonian palace, and carried a doll he called “le Petit Comte” that he always insisted was his son.
Count Stenbock. A more like Huysmans’s Des Esseintes has never walked the earth. (Source)
Original collections of his Decadent verse fetch tens of thousands on the open market. I was privileged enough to view two of them at the Bodleian last year, my source for these two poems. The first dates from 1893, the second from 1883. I chose these two from several others because of the rather striking thematic contrast they afford.
“O vos ómnes qui transítis per víam, atténdite et vidéte: Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus.”
All suffer, but thou shalt suffer inordinately.
All weep, but thy tears shall be tears of blood.
I will destroy the blossom in the blood,
Nathless, I will not slay thee utterly—
Nay, thou shalt live—I will implant in thee
Strange lusts and dark desires, lest any should,
In passing, look on thee in piteous mood,
For from the first I have my mark on thee.
So shalt thou suffer without sympathy,
And should’st thou stand within the street and say:
“Look on me, ye that wander by the way,
If there be any sorrow like to mine.”
They shall not bind thy wounds with oil and wine,
But with strange eyes downcast, shall turn from thee.
Sonnet I – Composed in St. Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg
On waves of music borne it seems to float
So tender sweet, so fraught with inner pain,
And far too exquisite to hear again
Above the quivering clouds that single note,—
The tremendous fires of the lamp-light gloat
On the exceeding sweetness of that strain—
Though mightest spend a lifetime all in vain
In striving to recall it, yet recall it not.
Therein are mingled mercy, pity, peace,
Tears wiped away and sorrow comforted,
Bearing sweet solace and a short relief
To those, that are acquainted well with grief,
Reviving for a time joys long since dead,
And granting to the fettered soul release.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
Denise’s Closer to the Savior, probably from the 1960’s or 1970’s. (Source)
Another blind album, It’s Me Again, Lord by Judy & Barbara, the Blind Slye Twins (Source)
Benny Dean’s I’d Rather Be Blind (In My Eyes Than In My Soul). A bit on the nose. (Source)
Here’s Something Special from Jeff Steinberg. Note the hook. (Source)
Richard & Gail Miller Sing the Gospel of Love. (Source)
Sandra Kay Hyler in “Through Prayer I Found An Answer.” (Source)
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.”
“He could strike you thisaway.”
“But he has not.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
In his Chapter Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict yesterday, the Prior of Silverstream referred to a Mozarabic Pater Noster, “a chant of striking beauty.” It is marked by a repetition of responsory Amens throughout, an ancient liturgical practice that Dom Mark explains in his post. Naturally, I was curious, and soon found a recording here. I thought my readers might enjoy it as much as I did. It is indeed full of a “striking beauty.”
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…
As my readers will well know, St. Philip Neri is my favorite saint and has been for a long while now. I take every opportunity I can to sing his praises on this blog, and today happens to be one of them. In Oxford, we are celebrating the Feast of the Patronage of St. Philip, a local solemnity that honors the canonical erection of the house here as a Congregation of the Oratory. Please pray for the Oxford Fathers on this, their silver jubilee.
To celebrate, here is my favorite hymn to the Apostle of Rome – Pangamus Nerio, as sung by the choir of the Birmingham Oratory. It is the vesperal hymn of St. Philip.
Pangamus Nerio, debita cantica
Quem, supra nitidi sydera verticis,
Virtus et meritum sustulit inclytum,
Carpturum pia gaudia.
Noctes sub spectabus, corpora martyrum,
Quas implent, vigilat sedulus integras,
Ex ipsis satagens discere mortuis
Normam qua bene viveret.
Nocte dum Nereus fercula pauperi,
Gestans praecipitat, panniger Angelus
Tecto significat, qualiter excidat
Numquam fervida caritas.
Orantis penetrans cordis in intimum,
Laxavit spatium Spiritus impete
De Coelo veniens, esset ut hospiti
Immenso locus amplior!
Coelorum Domino, dum sacra munera
Libabat Nerius, saepius advolans,
Tellurem rapido corpore deserit,
Christo fiat ut obvius!
Corpus deseruit, cum Deus Hostiae
Fertur sub niveae tegmine conditus,
Prudens, in Patriam, pergere splendide
Nolens absque Viatico.
Unfortunately, I don’t have an English translation (nor the time and energy to translate from the original myself). Alas.
May St. Philip Neri pray for Oxford, for the Oratorians there, and for all of us who call upon him in filial affection.