The Best Monastic Documentaries

The monastic life is about as far as one can get from the flashy world of the entertainment industry. And yet, it has been the subject of some very good documentaries over the last fifteen years or so. For those curious about the various monks (and nuns) of the world, I thought I would provide a list of a few films with which to start.

Into Great Silence (2006)

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A Carthusian prays in his cell, from Into Great Silence (Source)

This stirring art film by Philip Gröning was produced over several years. Every shot is deeply meditative. We, the viewers, are drawn into a contemplative pose along with the monks themselves. As might be expected, there is very little dialogue – indeed, very little sound at all. We get a powerful sense of the holy silence that envelops the Carthusians of La Grande Chartreuse. Yet when the monks do speak, such as in an interview with an ancient, blind monk that comes towards the end of the film, the words mean something. The chant of the night office given prominent place in the film evokes all the centuries of virtually unchanged monastic life that have come down to us from St. Bruno. This film is hands down the most important and most spiritually insightful documentary about monasticism, and it has continued to exert a powerful influence on most such documentaries since.

Veilleurs dans la nuit (2011)

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A liturgy at Le Barroux (Source)

The monastery of Sainte Marie-Madeleine du Barroux, founded in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, preserves much of the great tradition of French Benedictine life. It is one of the very few monasteries on earth which has preserved the form of tonsure once known as “the monastic crown.” It is also famous for its grand and elegant celebration of the liturgy, as well as the great holiness of its founder, Dom Gérard Calvet. This French documentary does a good job depicting their life through a mix of commentary and interviews. It is of an entirely different style than Into Great Silence, but it relates more actual information about the monks themselves.

Quaerere Deum (2011)

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Some of the monks of Norcia with their famous beer (Source)

Filmmaker Peter Hayden of Wilderland Media has done some great and poetic work publicizing the various new monasteries founded in the old world by Americans. The first of these was the Monastero di San Benedetto in Norcia, established in 2000. It is only appropriate then that Hayden should have looked at them first. He produced a “day in the life” style documentary bearing clear influences from Into Great Silence. The slow pace, lack of commentary, and meditative minimalism all recall the best parts of that earlier work. Norcia itself – or what it was before the terrible earthquake of 2016 destroyed much of the town – emerges as a living community “seeking God.” A subdued sense of joy shines throughout.

Benedictine Monks, Ireland (2017)

 

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Br. John Baptist in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, Silverstream. Photo taken by the author.

Peter Hayden’s second work on the monastic renewal is a more obviously promotional piece of filmmaking than Quaerere Deum. A profile of Silverstream Priory, Benedictine Monks, Ireland depicts the community life of adoration and reparation led by the monks there. Scenes from Mass, chapter, and refectory alternate with candid shots of the monks at work and leisure. Interviews with the Prior and Subprior provide spiritual as well as historical context. As someone who knows the monks personally, I found it a pretty good exposition of their spirit. That peculiarly Benedictine sense of place is evoked through gentle Irish music at various points. And the combined wisdom of Dom Mark and Dom Benedict is a great grounding to the beautiful visuals. I was very taken with the image of Dom Cassian, then only a postulant, in prayer at the pillar and candle.

My only criticism is that, in spite of all these good features, the film fails to capture the overwhelming sense of the supernatural that hangs about Silverstream. I’m not sure if it was the darkness of the year during filming, or the slightly uneven cinematography, or the lack of scenic order that scuttled it for me.  Benedictine Monks, Ireland needs a heavier dose of the contemplative stillness that so strongly marks both Into Great Silence and Quaerere Deum. Still, it’s a nice introduction to the place for those curious about the Benedictine Monks of Perpetual Adoration.

Présence à Dieu (2015)

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Matins at Sept-Fons, from Présence à Dieu (Source)

This short film, first brought to my attention by Fr. Joseph Koczera SJ, does a good job showing what a traditional monastery can look like, even if it embraces the new Mass and the vernacular office. Notre Dame de Sept-Fons is currently the largest Trappist monastery in the world, at least in terms of membership – it is also manifestly young and diverse. The film shows why the Abbey keeps getting vocations. A near constant soundtrack of chant carries the viewer along. Présence à Dieu is also full of the Abbot’s exposition of the Rule, which is a nice plus.

God is the Bigger Elvis (2011)

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Mother Dolores Hart, wearing her trademark beret, from God is the Bigger Elvis (Source)

This one differs from the others in a few key respects. First, it’s an HBO production, rather than an Indie film. Secondly, it’s about nuns rather than monks. And third, there is a delicate sense of humor throughout that is a refreshing change from the other movies. It tells the story of Mother Dolores Hart, a starlet of the 1950’s who appeared in several features alongside Elvis before becoming a nun at the Benedictine monastery of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. She is now the prioress of the community. The documentary looks at her life and vocation as well as the daily ins and outs of the monastery. Not to be missed!

Life in Hidden Light (2016)

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A scene in the refectory from Life in Hidden Light (Source)

Monasticism is not confined to the Benedictine family. As Life in Hidden Light reminds us, the Carmelites also have a great tradition of contemplative monasticism. Clearly influenced by Into Great Silence, this film does a great job balancing meditative cinematography and interviews with the Discalced Carmelite sisters of Wolverhampton. One in particular that stands out is the old, mostly deaf nun who speaks about the “mess” of the world and the love of God. I was reminded of Into Great Silence‘s blind Carthusian (not to mention the slightly grotesque Jesuit in “The Enduring Chill,” by Flannery O’Connor). The old nun’s message is a sound, salutary one that we should all hearken to in this day and age.

There are probably other such films out there, but these are a few that might be a good starting place for those interested in the monastic life.

Nostalgia Without Illusions

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The Wilmington Giant, Eric Ravilious (Source)

Recently I read an article about a genre of music that had previously been unknown to me: Hauntology. In a nutshell, Hauntology is a throwback to the eerie, folksy world of British childhood in the 1970’s. The author summarizes the genre’s affective impact as “strange, melancholy disquiet.” Apparently music is being made today (and has been for some time) that conjures all at once that decade’s public broadcasting for children, the acoustic sounds of the English folk tradition, psychedelia, pagan chants, and synthesizers. Most of this material has been released through a few different labels: Ghost Box, Clay Pipe, and Trunk Records. Each specializes in a different variation of the general theme. On the whole, though, they all produce music that’s unsettling and evocative of a very particular place and time in the last century. There is something autumnal, something anachronistic, something broken in it all. In short, it’s music that’s haunted.

Many of the albums have cover art inspired by Eric Ravilious or John Nash or Sir Stanley Spencer or even Rex Whistler, those painters who so marvelously captured the quiet unease of the British landscape and its denizens. And the multimedia satirical phenomenon that is Scarfolk fits right into the broader movement. Hauntology is more than just a style of music. It’s an aesthetic.

In this respect, Hauntology is to the 1970’s what Vaporwave is to the late 1980’s and 90’s, or, for that matter, what David Lynch’s entire corpus is to the 1950’s.

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Malls built in the early years of Bush I are the stuff of Vaporwave dreams. (Source)

Vaporwave derives its critical bite as well as its occasional airy ephemerality from a unifying sense of dread. Much the same could be said of Hauntology. Only instead of the zombie-like ascent of neoliberal late capitalism under the glittering haze of digital culture and advertising, Hauntology is still preoccupied with the anxieties of the analog age. Orwellian dystopia, the loss of the British countryside, and the destruction of innocence all hover under the surface. It’s drawing upon creepy public service announcements rather than Japanese soft drink commercials. Hauntology is to British Folk Horror as Vaporwave is to Cyberpunk.

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A scene from Blue Velvet (1986), one of David Lynch’s most distinctive films. It set the tone for much of what was to follow in its powerful evocation and ultimately ruthless subversion of mid-century norms (Source).

The common denominator is nostalgia, but a nostalgia free of illusions. Each of these aesthetic representations of a remembered decade – Lynch’s 1950’s, Hauntology’s 1970’s, and Vaporwave’s Digital Age – contains a degree of attachment to that particular time. Usually because the main creators involved in producing the aesthetic grew up then, and thus they draw upon the dreamlike haze which alternately gilds and clouds our world in youth. But it’s all shot through with the very real understanding that the past was not as wonderful as we would like to believe. Something nasty lurks just beyond our peripheral vision. We cannot help remember, but in that remembrance, terror awaits.

I’m an American, and only in my early twenties. 1970’s Britain wasn’t a world I ever knew. Nevertheless, I immediately connected with the emotional phenomenon behind Hauntology. Certain relics of that earlier time appeared every now and then in childhood, and even those that weren’t directly from the United Kingdom of the 1970’s often bring to mind that same feeling of remembered unease. Many of Don Bluth’s films animate precisely this strange, sensitive part of my memory. So do Stephen Gammell’s original illustrations of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. So does The October Country, Ray Bradbury’s wonderful short story collection (which itself significantly predates the main era of Hauntology). So does anything by Lynd Ward. So do parts of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. So does that horrible movie, The Plague Dogs. There are probably more examples I could summon up if I thought about it long enough. I am no stranger to “strange, melancholy disquiet.”

I’ve always liked that sensation, and I’ve always been drawn to other peoples’ nostalgia. As such, I’m super pleased to have discovered Hauntology.

Letter to a Catechumen

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“Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” (Source)

My Dear Brother Thomas Bede,

Easter brings us from darkness to light, from loss to gain, from death to life. Christ vanquishes the world, the flesh, and the devil. His victory reveals the true meaning of Easter—it is above all the feast of our conversion. The whole of the Christian message is for naught if Christ did not rise from the grave. But He did, and He invites us to share in the superabundance of His sanctity.

We cannot have holiness on our own terms. There is one model—a single life given to us by the Holy Ghost. It is a mercy and a wonder of God that Our Lord impresses His one divine image and likeness into the hearts of so many and so various saints. But light refracted through a prism is still light. We mortals cannot learn the ways of the divine life except by constant recourse to the God-Man.

And where do we receive this sacred pedagogy? Where can we savor the words that bring resurrection? Where do we set our hopes in the long trek through “this valley of tears?”

I think you already know the answer: the sacred liturgy. The Catholic life is drawn from, tied to, and led before the Tabernacle. The final end of our journey is to reach the Tabernacle veil, draw it aside with trembling hands, send forth our last breath in a sigh of consummate joy and relief, and step gracefully into the everlasting House of God. The Catholic life lived well is thus a pilgrimage from font to Tabernacle. Our Lord does not abandon us in this long journey. Like the good father of the parable, He rushes out to welcome His prodigal sons with open arms. He has prepared a great banquet in our honor. Indeed, the Savior who died for you gives you His flesh as feast. Every Mass is a homecoming. Every Holy Communion is a kiss of reconciliation.

I know all of this from experience, having already walked the path you are about to take. And I speak from experience when I say, dear brother, that everything in the Christian life must be brought back to the Tabernacle. If we don’t center our lives on the Blessed Sacrament, we shall be like ships adrift in a stormy sea. What fruitless turbulence enters the soul of one far from the Eucharist! What celestial treasures do we miss! Treasures given to us anew every year in the Sacred Triduum. Soon it will all be yours—yours the Supper, yours the Cross, yours the sojourn in the Tomb, yours the descent into Hell, and yours the Triumph in the Glorious Resurrection of Our Lord. In all of these mysteries, Our Lord wishes to imprint His image onto your soul. He will fashion you to be His servant. Pray that in the latter end, you may also be His saint.

You have no idea how long and how ardently Our Lord has desired your first Communion. From the very fathomless heights of eternity, He saw and loved you. As the whips broke His spotless flesh and the hateful wood of the cross bit into His back, He bore your face in mind. And when He hung there, dying, and said the blessed word—Sitio—“I thirst”—He spoke of your union with His heart. There is no point at which Christ did not desire you. He seeks to possess you in your entirety: body, blood, soul, and spirit. In the Eucharist, He offers Himself to you in precisely the same way. And as His gift of self is perfect, He shall make yours perfect, too.

When Dame Julian of Norwich was given a mystic vision of the world, she did not see sin. I believe this is because she was afforded a fleeting glimpse of the world as it will be in the Eschaton, the world as God sees it. Think of that, my brother. All the sins committed by you and me and every human being we have ever met, all the crimes that have soaked the pages of history in blood, all the atrocities that rightly call out to God for vengeance—all will be washed away. The past will be wiped clean.

Your conversion reproduces this grand act of divine mercy in miniature. You come to the altar of God a mere mortal, and a sin-sick one at that. Your burden would torment and crush you. The world of sin affords no rest. But my brother, you have chosen the path of freedom. You have set down one burden, but you are to take up another. Only this one is light and free and easy, giving strength to whoever bears it. It is the Cross, a deadening foolishness to the world, but the “pearl of great price” to those illumined by Divine Wisdom.

At the Easter Vigil, everything will change. When the water flows over your brow, when the oil touches the same spot, and when the Host alights on your lips, you will no longer be the same person you have been all your life. You will become instead one body with Christ crucified. Your life will no longer be yours; the act of surrender must be total. Your words, your breaths, your steps, your very heartbeats will belong to Christ. And He will use you to bring His peace into this world. By that whitest of magic, the sacraments, you will start to become a “little Christ,” a Christian. What an awful, beautiful fate.

I will not give you advice. There will be many closer to you who have a fuller knowledge of the Catholic life than I do. Go to them. Seek the wisdom grown only in many years of faith. And keep close to Mary. Remember that you are but an infant, and she is your mother. She will guide you.

Now, my very dear brother, it is time for you to take up your cross and know the Life Eternal.

In Christ,

Rick

Five Years a Catholic

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May the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary pray for us. (Source)

“To begin and end well, devotion to our Blessed Lady, the Mother of God, is nothing less than indispensable.” – St. Philip Neri, Maxims.

Five years ago, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil. The journey since then has been an adventure, to say the least. Not all of it has been good. I’ve continued to make lots of mistakes, often failing in faith, hope, charity, and all the other virtues. Individual Catholics have often disappointed me. There were moments of doubt along the way, and, like the infamous Pillar of Salt, I am no stranger to the occasional backwards glance.

But in reflecting on those five years, the overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude. The many wonderful people I have met – and, more importantly, the graces I have received – have confirmed for me the essential soundness of my choice. I have no regrets. I only wish more people could know the abiding peace that comes with conversion to the Church that Christ established on St. Peter. And having consecrated myself to Mary, I feel as if I have had a new strength in the spiritual life since last Summer.

Thus far, I have dedicated each year to some mystery of the Faith. It is in that same spirit that I consecrate this sixth year of my Catholic life to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary. I pray that by her triumphant heart, she will continue to guide me to a more perfect knowledge of Her Father, Son, and Spouse. As St. Philip says, “Our Blessed Lady ought to be our love and consolation.” I hope that she ever will be mine.

And thus on this Good Friday, I beg your prayers and those of the saints, that I might persevere in the faith and grow in the love of God.

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, pray for us.
Our Lady Immaculate, pray for us.
St. Joseph, pray for us.
St. Philip Neri, pray for us.

Amen.

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The Queen of Heaven. (Source)

60,000 Views and Counting

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It’s been an (un)earthly delight to have you all.

Thank you to all all the many thousands who have, collectively, given me about 61,000 views over the course of my blog’s existence. I always enjoy receiving your feedback, and I appreciate the time and consideration you give my work. A big thank you to those who not only read my work, but share and recommend it. May you all have a very blessed Holy Week.

Thoughts on Converting the Young

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The official drink of the movement. (Source)

By now, it has become a commonplace among the Catholic literati that, as one reporter put it, “The Kids are Old Rite.” Traditionalism is on the rise among Millennial Catholics. Several overlapping clans of young, traditional Catholicism have arisen over social media, especially Twitter. Traditional orders get more and younger vocations; older, more progressive orders face extinction in the near future. The Pope himself has taken notice and expressed concerns about this trend. Of course, most of the young trads prefer a pope closer to their own age.

Several unrelated items recently have come up in my news-feed that have collectively crystallized the issue for me.

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First, a three-part study of FOCUS (The Fellowship of Catholic University Students) has just appeared in the National Catholic Reporter. While I’m often wary of NCR’s coverage on just about anything, I’d encourage you to read it. Sometimes the magazine’s liberal bias gets the best of it, as in a mostly uninteresting examination of FOCUS’s ties to Neo-Conservative and generally right-wing organizations in Part II.

But there are also genuine insights. A lot of the issues raised reminded me of my own somewhat mixed experience with a FOCUS-dominated campus ministry. I certainly made friends, some of whom I still consider important mentors. My first-year Bible Study leader, a fellow student who had been “discipled” by the FOCUS missionaries, was a great influence in my first year of Catholicism (and beyond). But I more or less left the ministry fairly early on, like most of my trad or trad-lite friends. The NCR study gets into some of the reasons why.

For instance, in Part 1, we read:

A FOCUS women’s Bible study group gave Elisa Angevin purpose and strengthened her values — at first. As a freshman at New York University, she met a missionary, who became a mentor and a friend.

But as she met different people outside that community — some of whom were “rubbed the wrong way” by FOCUS — Angevin began to distance herself from the group because it felt exclusionary, rigid and not open to different ways of being Catholic.

“Once you become part of FOCUS, it has a very structured approach,” recalled Angevin, now 25 and a social worker in New York. “It created a lot of passion. But a lot of student leaders looked down on other people who didn’t have the same passion.”

Angevin attended some of FOCUS’ mega-conferences, such as the Student Leadership Summit, and was inspired by the speakers and sense of community. “It was empowering to see people my age who were as excited as I was,” Angevin recalled. “But as I started to get older, the newness had worn off … and it felt very closed.”

A lot of this rings true. Speaking from my own experience, I always got the very strong impression that FOCUS represented a fairly “mainstream” form of Catholicism, the JP2 consensus. Banal liturgy coupled with social conservatism. But there really isn’t any room for traditionalists – or even just those who are friendly to the Old Mass and the piety it sustained. I remember being called “judgmental” for my views. Other trads were  sidelined as well.

I also think that the program’s reliance on *very young* missionaries often leads to a dumbing-down of the vast spiritual and intellectual inheritance that is Catholicism. There’s some call for this at a campus ministry, where ministers have to reach as many people as possible. Not everyone can or even should be St. Thomas Aquinas. Undergraduates don’t often go to ministries looking for lectures, but for some escape from the academic life. Still, must it all be so infantilizing? Perhaps you can see what I mean here:

At the Chicago event, held at the sprawling McCormick Place convention center, FOCUS founder Curtis Martin struts onto the stage, hands in the air, shouting “Woo!” and “Awesome!” to the applauding summit attendees who had been enjoying a contemporary Christian band before his keynote address. Two days earlier, actor Jim Caviezel — Jesus in the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of the Christ” — made a surprise visit to the conference.

“This is how awesome you are,” Martin said. “When the guy who pretended to be Jesus walked in the room, you all stood up and clapped, but when Jesus showed up, you all fell down and knelt. You know the difference. How cool is that?”

What an ineffably stupid way of addressing adults. Mr. Martin manages to strike at once a patronizing and self-congratulatory tone, a true rhetorical feat.

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One thing I learned in the NCR articles is that FOCUS missionaries only get four weeks of training the summer before they begin. And some of that is dedicated to learning how to fund-raise. (Source)

Yet my unease with FOCUS wasn’t just with that sort of standard, if irritating, campus ministry procedure. As a recent convert who had grown up in an Evangelical Protestant school, I found a lot of FOCUS’s Protestant-lite discourse unsatisfying. It was more than just the use of emotivist praise and worship music at Benediction (as grating as that was). It was more than just the way FOCUS mission trips seemed to mirror the sort of make-work vacation mission trips I recognized from my time in the Evangelical world. I got the distinct sense that FOCUS borrowed heavily from the discourse of Evangelicalism, even down to the language it deployed when talking about conversion. Here’s an example from Part III:

As former FOCUS employees (called “missionaries”) or as students involved with the organization on their college campuses, they were taught its “Win, build, send” formula.

“Win” means to build “authentic friendships” with people, with the ultimate purpose of evangelization, while “build” requires helping those friends grow in faith and virtue through what FOCUS calls “the big three” virtues: chastity, sobriety and excellence.

First, we have the shallow reduction of evangelization to a business-like slogan, as if the work of the Holy Ghost could be charted like a marketing campaign. This type of lingo is, in my experience, very common in Evangelical discourse. Paired with it we find the language of authenticity. The first step in FOCUS’s three-part strategy is to “build ‘authentic friendships.'” Authenticity is like obscenity – you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it. The problem, of course, is that you can’t actually plan an “authentic friendship.” The planning is precisely what makes it artificial. Friendships come about organically, and no two look alike. The same can be said of conversions. At best, FOCUS should rather resemble what St. Philip Neri imagined the Oratory to be, though he never constructed any firm plans for the Congregation’s foundation or development. At worst, students get the sense of entering faux, farmed, and framed friendships. Those attract precisely no one.

In the emphasis on “chastity, sobriety, and excellence” as, risibly, “‘the big three’ virtues,” we find a synecdoche of the very strong note of philistine, puritanical prudery ensconced in FOCUS. Encountering this tendency also made me recall the moralistic Calvinism of my youth. Everything in Christianity seemingly came back to sex, drinking, and drugs. No one who ponders the state of American students could seriously suggest that these issues don’t matter, but to hammer on about them to the exclusion of two other triads – Faith, Hope, and Charity, and the Good, the True, and the Beautiful – makes Christianity dull.

 

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Protestant Sunday worship, or Catholic conference? Hard to tell…and therein lies the rub. (Source)

But why does FOCUS make “chastity, sobriety, and excellence” its threefold mantra? The FOCUS promotional video in Part 1 offers some insight into their worldview. The narrative told there is one of nostalgia and decline. Various clips from the 1950’s are shown in contrast to the sex, drugs, technology, and mass media of today. The message is obvious: society was better back then, and it’s worse now. But it’s not fundamentally true. First of all, evil has always existed. FOCUS’s Manichaean view of the past may not be unusual, but it’s also deeply lopsided. All the terrible things FOCUS decries about our modern society – pornography, addiction, suicide, the disenchantment of consumerist technology – all of these things existed prior to the 1960’s. And lots of bad things about the society of the 1950’s have disappeared or been greatly mitigated in various ways (need I point out segregation as the elephant in the room?). Yet none of those advances are mentioned. It’s not surprising that social justice Catholics, like trads, find themselves ill at ease with FOCUS. Is it all that shocking that “a lack of racial, ethnic and economic diversity among students served by FOCUS is another criticism?”

The FOCUS video also fails to note the role the Church herself played in clearing the way for, hastening, and abetting the worst changes. Nary a peep do we hear about how leaders of the postconciliar Church abandoned her sacred mission to convert a sinful world, nor the way that such a surrender was intimately tied to the loss of the Mass of Ages.

I don’t intend for this post to be a simple laundry-list of my grievances with FOCUS, philosophical and otherwise. After all, I know plenty of wonderful people who got a lot out of their connection with the organization. The FOCUS missionaries themselves were always perfectly pleasant, and seemed orthodox enough. But I also knew others who felt excluded and patronized by the model they brought to campus ministry. I confess a very deep ambivalence about their hopes to expand ministry to parishes (though the veritable clerisy of middle-class lay ministers that Marti Jewell envisions in Part III of the report is hardly any better).

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An alternative. (Source)

If we want to win the youth with “authenticity,” then look no further than the Latin Mass. Or even just the Novus Ordo celebrated according to Fortescue, as you see at the English Oratories. That which is unmistakably Catholic and orthodox has the best chance of bringing about conversion of heart. I would be curious to know how Juventutem compares to FOCUS in terms of outreach, vocations, etc. Regardless, my own view of how this program of evangelization might best function is in my essay, “The Oratorian Option.” Nothing has changed since then, except that I’ve gotten the chance to attend an Oratorian parish consistently, an experience that has corroborated my original theories. The Eucharist and the worthy celebration of the Mass are at the heart of it all.

It’s just unfortunate that FOCUS, at least as I’ve known them, aren’t interested.

II

The New York Times published a piece on the Trappists of Mepkin, monks in my own home Diocese of Charleston. They’re good, quiet priests who farm mushrooms on a prime piece of real estate next to the Cooper River. The Times profile is nice enough, though I think its central flaws are aptly pointed out by my friend, Fr. Joseph Koczera SJ, in his response over at The City and the World. To wit:

Despite the NYT‘s suggestion that the Mepkin “affiliate program” represents “a new form of monasticism,” the monks themselves realize that it does not. As NYT reporter Stephen Hiltner observes, “the monks at Mepkin are cleareyed about the likelihood that their new initiatives — which will probably attract young, interfaith and short-term visitors — will fail to attract Roman Catholics who are interested in a long-term commitment with the core monastic community.” Mepkin’s abbot also frankly admits that the monastery may not survive: “I’d rather be in a community that has a vital energy and a good community life. And if that means closing Mepkin, that means closing Mepkin.”

“New” and dubiously monastic programs substituted for genuine, old-fashioned monasticism? We’ve seen this before. Mepkin’s well-intended program differs even from, say, the Quarr internship insofar as it isn’t primarily targeted to candidates who might plausibly have a vocation, single Catholic men from the ages of 18 to 25. And unlike Quarr, a monastery which retains its Solesmes heritage, Mepkin seems to be failing in part because it holds too tightly to the Spirit of the Council. Mepkin’s new affiliate program is open to women as well as men, “of any faith tradition.” It seems that the solution they’ve come up with to their vocational crisis is to become less Catholic, not more.

Fr. Koczera continues at length:

As Terry Mattingly points out at GetReligion, the NYT article is very one-sided, focusing on monasteries that are dying without ever asking questions about monasteries that actually are drawing vocations. Most Trappist monasteries in the United States seem to be in straits similar to those of Mepkin, at least judging by yearly statistics published by the Trappist Order. On the other hand, it isn’t difficult to find monasteries in the United States (albeit those of other orders) that continue to attract (and retain) young vocations: one thinks of the Benedictines at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma or Saint Louis Abbey in Missouri, or of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas (a monastery I’ve written about once or twice before)…Despite the evident sincerity of the monks at Mepkin Abbey, their sense of what young people want belies data about what young Catholics in particular are looking for. As the monks acknowledge, seeking to provide a haven for ‘spiritual but not religious’ types will not lead to an influx of new vocations. The monks may realize, too, that Millennial Catholics who take their faith seriously are also serious about commitment and likely to be unimpressed by a strategy that is specifically tailored to seekers who are “interested in the spiritual life journey, but not in institutional religion.” In this sense, it’s interesting to contrast the NYT story on Mepkin Abbey with a NBC News story from just last week that highlighted the rising number of American Millennials who are choosing to enter religious orders – and who enter looking for a solid sense of identity and commitment that is countercultural. They represent a generation of Catholics who find themselves, as Tracey Rowland writes, “in full rebellion from the social experiments of the contemporary era” as they seek “to piece together elements of a fragmented Christian culture.” Some will find the resources they need to assemble those fragments in one or another of America’s remaining monasteries – but not, it seems, at Mepkin Abbey.

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A 2016 photo of the community of Norcia. The monastery is unlike Mepkin in many ways: young, international, augmented by regular vocations, and above all, Traditional. (Source)

Of the new monasteries that do seem to get vocations (and lots of them), two stand out: Norcia and Silverstream. The lives of these two monasteries are so attractive to young American Catholic men that, though they are in Italy and Ireland respectively, they are mostly inhabited by Americans willing to make the move to Europe. Both are old-rite monasteries. And I would wager that neither Dom Cassian Folsom nor Dom Mark Daniel Kirby went about planning their monastic ventures with catchy slogans or even a very programmatic sense of action. They celebrated the Mass reverently, preached orthodoxy, and, with the help of the internet, they achieved widespread fame. They shared the trust in Divine Providence that St. Philip had as he – or, in his own words, Our Lady – founded the Oratory.

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My friend John Monaco has just published an excellent personal narrative at his blog, Inflammate Omnia. It describes his Catholic upbringing, difficulties in seminary, extended flirtation with liberalism, and final reversion to a basically Traditionalist position. Parts of it reminded me of my own story: my natural religious sentiment as a child, my vituperative liberalism in High School, my conversion and eventual move towards a more or less Traditionalist orientation, in part through the beneficent influence of the Christian East.

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Christ offers us His heart freely and fully. (Source)

I was particularly taken with the way that the Act of Reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as traditional a devotion as you can get, gently shaped John’s sensibilities over time. His original resistance to the Sacred Heart gave way to the a love of Jesus in precisely this mystery. And by the infallible rule of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, the prayer also led him to adhere more perfectly to the Faith as enshrined in Tradition. He writes,

You see, the more I prayed to the Sacred Heart, the more I began to really think about what I was actually praying. Prayer of Reparation? “For what?” I asked. My sins. What does it mean to “resist the rights and teaching authority of the Church which Thou hast founded?” That must obviously mean that the Church has authority, and that Christ founded the Church. The more and more I prayed these prayers, the more I began to question its essence. And even more so, I began to question my own conduct and dispositions.

You see, none of this “mercy” stuff makes sense if we don’t believe that sin actually harms. If all sin is simply personal weaknesses that do not affect our relationship with God and each other, then why do we need forgiveness? Or, in response to some moral theologians, if it is impossible to sin, then what is the purpose of grace? If the Church doesn’t have authority, then why do we consider the command to preach the Gospel? If Christ didn’t found the Church, then why should we bother following it? I also wondered why I was skipping all of the “hard-sayings” of Jesus, such as His words on divorce and remarriage, purity, suffering, obedience, and the promise that the “world” would hate me for preaching the truth. I started examining the fact that people would tell me, “I like you because you’re not talking about Hell and all of that sin stuff all the time”, and that had less to do with me balancing the Christian message than it did with me picking & choosing which parts to speak about.

John also captures the essence of the new, young Traditionalism:

Delving beyond the contemporary face of Catholicism, I was able to re-discover Tradition- not through EWTN or Rorate Caeli, nor through PrayTell or Crux, but rather through a true experience of the sacred liturgy, prayer, and study.

A future church historian will take that line as summative of the entire experience of a generation. The only thing I would add is that in my own case, as with many others, beauty was the central thing. Community, tradition, stability, a sense of history; all these are goods that the Church offers her children. But it was supernatural beauty that captured my imagination and led me to a genuine encounter with the Living God. The Church has the chance to re-present that “beauty ever ancient, ever new” each week at the Mass. It is Christ Himself in the Eucharist who will convert the world. Not our misbegotten, if earnest, attempts to plan out the advance of His Kingdom. If anything, we too often get in His way.

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More of this, please. (Source)

Elsewhere: A ‘First Things’ Debut

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One of Blake’s illustrations of the Paradiso. (Source)

I have to thank Elliot Milco for soliciting, editing, and publishing a short review I wrote in the April 2018 edition of First Things. It is my first appearance in that great publication. I have the privilege of sharing the page with a few other really stellar pieces; among others, Mr. Joshua Kenz and Ms. Emily Sammon have written particularly outstanding reviews of very different books. My own work covers a recent Taschen publication that examines the William Blake illustrations of Dante. Go give it (and the book in question) a read!

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Go buy this book. You won’t regret it! (Source)

A Letter on the Face of God

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The Holy Face of Christ. (Source)

Dear Miriam,

Forgive me for my delay in replying to your message. You pose an excellent question, one that deserves an honest and well-considered answer. Indeed, I am not sure that I’m entirely qualified to speak on the matter. Not being a Biblical scholar, I can’t discuss the critical questions of authorship, Hebrew grammar, and culture that could be so useful. Alas. Nonetheless, I shall try to tell you what I understand the verse to mean, and why I saw fit to use it.

You ask me about what the Priestly Blessing meansespecially what we are to understand by those mysterious words, “The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Numbers 6:25-26 KJV). You are right to note that there is something odd about this passage.

I believe the prayer is best understood through meditation. Let us look first at the beginning and bulk of the passage:

The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee…

What do we learn from these words? What does it mean to say, however poetically, that God has a “face,” a “countenance?”

First, it means that God is personal. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not an abstract, nameless force. He is not the Tao of the Chinese mysticsor not just that. Rather, He is someone, a who, an infinite yet utterly unique spirit. This truth entails another; God is relational. The face is the chief organ and sign by which we communicate with other people. The full range of our emotions find expression in the human face. The face becomes a symbol or synecdoche of our individual souls. It is the way we share our hearts. It is the bridge between our interiority and the other. Through speech, a kiss, an exchange of glances, the face mediates our personhood and thus becomes the location of communion.

The use of the word “countenance” in English sums up all these ideas, with one rather startling implication. God Almighty desires to be in a relationship with us. More than that, He wishes to dwell with us. The words of the blessing are not that of a God who will reign remotely. If the metaphor of the “face” suggests personality and relationship, it also suggests presence. God wants us to be wholly His, that He may be wholly ours. That is why He goes so far as to establish multiple, connected covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David.

But covenants, like great love stories, are exclusive. You are right to point out the negative implication in the verse. If we pray for God to turn His face towards us, then surely God’s face could be turned away from us as well? I think the certain answer of the Bible, not to mention ordinary human experience, is yes. The ancient Israelites believed that they were a privileged, priestly people, subject to a totally unique relationship with God. Yet the whole of the Old Testament’s historical and prophetic corpus also shows that the Nation of Israel repeatedly caused God to “turn His face” away from them, not in loving them less, nor in breaching His covenant, but in permitting them to suffer chastisements that they might return to Him. The Holy only communes with the holy; God cannot abide with sin. And the Israelites often sinned. We all do. Speaking from my own life, I can testify that mortal sin is a terrible thing. To fall away from the face of God, to want to hide from His face as Adam did in the Garden, to feel Him turn His holy face away from yousuch is the interior darkness and desolation wrought by sin.

Yet the ground of your questionwhy God’s face would be turned away from anyone reveals that whether you realize it or not, you already have a basically Christian idea of God. To the ancient Jews who composed the Priestly Blessing for the liturgies of Tabernacle and Temple, the Face of God only turned towards the Nation of Israel. The idea that God loves all, and loves them unconditionally, is a notion that did not exist anywhere before the coming of Christ.

Indeed, the prayer receives its perfect answer and fulfillment when God takes on a human face. Jesus Christ is the Face of God, a divine person who wishes to be in an eternal and perfect communion with all men. That is why He is called Emmanuel, “God with us.” He is our eternal high priest (Hebrews 7:23-28; 9:11-14; 10:10-14).

And as our high priest, He has fulfilled the Priestly Blessing in three ways, all of which were unimaginable when it was written.

First, in His coming. In Christ, God has turned His face towards usin the manger at Bethlehem, in His ministry among the poor and sick, in His companionship with sinners, in His Transfiguration, in His ceaseless prayer for us, in His cruel and unjust death upon the cross, and in His glorious Resurrection and Ascension.

Secondly, in the heart of the Godhead. By assuming human nature, God the Son becomes a human. By His Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension into Heaven, He has brought a human face into the inner life of the Most Holy Trinity. God the Father gazes upon the human face of His Son, and He desires to see all mankind in and through that face. God the Spirit, eternal love, is born forth out of this mutual gaze. The Father and the Son only behold each other in the absolute love of the Spirit.

But what is the fruit for us today? The rest of the prayer tells us:

…and give thee peace.

Peace is not the absence of suffering, but the absence of disturbance. The peace of Christ, the peace “which passeth all understanding” is not to be taken as earthly ease and comfort (Philippians 4:7 KJV). That would merely be the false and facile peace of the world. The peace of God is a foretaste of Heaven, an inner rock upon which we may stand when suffering assails us, a seed of the Kingdom that may render us more perfect imitators of Christ. With the peace of God in our hearts, we may hope to know the true joy that, paradoxically, only grows from the cross. This peace is not a quiet meekness. It is the liberating freedom and security that comes from the knowledge of His love. Peace does not paralyzeit propels. It makes us undertake great adventures for God. Why? Because true peace is communion with God.

That is why I made use of the prayer at the end of my “Letter on Loneliness.” It occurred to me that the torment of loneliness is in some way redeemed if we remember the presence of the God who is love, and thus attain to His peace.

I don’t believe we can hope for the fullness of that peace without the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. It is simply impossible to be a Christian without the Eucharist. Any grace, any glory, any goodness in the world is only granted and sustained by Christ present with us in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Indeed, the graces of all the other sacraments flow from the Eucharist, since it is Christ Himself.

And it is in the Eucharist that we find the third way that Christ has fulfilled the Priestly Blessing and extended its meaning to all peoples and all epochs. In the Eucharist, we once again come face to face with the God of Israelquite literally. His Eucharistic Face can be found in any Catholic Church on earth. Go to a service of Benediction. Chant hymns of adoration as the incense flies up like a ghost into the shadowy heights of the sanctuary. Let your soul rise with it, high above the little lights of the candles that line the altar. Then, as the bell rings and the priest lifts the Host, you will see God. Or at least, you will see His veil. He hides Himself under the sight of mere matter. No matter what, He will see you.

Better yet, go to Mass. Go to the Easter Vigil. Go on any Sunday. There, you will not only see God, but hundreds of perfectly ordinary people communing with Him in the most intimate way imaginablebody and soul. That holy act is the true fulfillment of the Priestly Blessing. It is the seal and crown of all the covenants. Not everyone in the world partakes of itbut happy are those who do! They alone know the Peace that was promised, the Peace that is He.

Forgive me if I have rambled. One could, in theory, write whole volumes on the verses you have asked me about. I am sure someone with more learning and a deeper life in Christ could give you an altogether better explanation. But what I have written is drawn ex corde meo. I hope, at the very least, that I’ve answered your question. I’d be happy to continue discussing the matter.

Until then, I pray that the Good Lord blesses you in all your works and ways.

In Christ,

Rick

A Benedictine Prayer to St. Philip Neri in Lenten Time

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Ven. Dom Prosper Guéranger. (Source)

Many of my readers will know the Venerable Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875) for his monumental work of sacramentology and liturgical exegesis, The Liturgical Year. I happened to be perusing a 1908 French edition of the text and came upon Dom Guéranger’s homage to St. Philip Neri in Volume 3 of his Easter writings. Naturally, this discovery was of great interest to me, as I have written before on the similarities between the Oratorian and Benedictine vocations. I thus present to you my own translation of the prayer, found on pages 548-50 in the edition I was using. I hope it may be thought a fair translation of the great monk’s words. At any rate, I have tried to render his prayer in an elevated style worthy to the subject.

Thou didst love the Lord Jesus, O Philip, and thy whole life was nothing but a continuous act of love; but thou didst not wish to enjoy the highest good alone. All thine efforts tended to make Him known by all men, such that all might love Him with thee and thus reach their supreme end. For forty years, thou wast the indefatigable apostle of the holy city, and nothing could subtract from the action of the divine fire that burned in thee. We who are the posterity of those who heard thy words and admired the celestial gifts in thee, we dare to beg of thee to cast thy gaze upon us as well. Teach us to love our Jesus resurrected. It does not suffice for us to adore Him and to rejoice in His triumph; we must love Him: for the train of His mysteries from His Incarnation to His Resurrection have no other aim but revealing to us, in an ever growing light, His divine kindness. It is by loving him ever more that we shall succeed in elevating ourselves to the mystery of His Resurrection, which fulfills in us the revelation of all the riches of His heart. The more He lifts Himself into the new life that He won in leaving His tomb, the more He appears full of love for us, and the more He desires that our hearts should be joined with His. Pray, O Philip, and beg that “our heart and our flesh might quake for the living God” [Ps. 83:2]. After the mystery of Easter, introduce us to that of the Ascension; dispose our hearts to receive the divine Spirit of Pentecost; and when the august mystery of the Eucharist shines before our eyes with all its fires in the solemnity that approaches, thou, O Philip, who didst celebrate it one last time here below, who didst rise at the end of the day to that eternal rest where Jesus shows Himself unveiled, do thou prepare our souls to receive and to taste “the living bread which giveth life to the world” [John 6:33].

The sanctity that shone in thee, O Philip, had as its character the momentum of thy soul towards God, and all those who approached thee soon participated in this disposition that alone could respond to the call of the divine Redeemer. Thou didst know that thou took hold of souls, and thou drovest them to perfection by the way of trust and generosity of heart. In this great work thy method was never to have any method at all, imitating the Apostles and the ancient Fathers, and thou didst trust in the virtue proper to the word of God. By thee the fervent frequenting of the sacraments reappeared as the surest sign of the Christian life. Pray for the faithful, and come to the aid of so many souls who grow restless and exhaust themselves in the paths that the hand of man hast traced, and that too often retard or prevent the intimate union of Creator and creature.

Thou didst most ardently love the Church, O Philip; and this love of the Church is the indispensable sign of sanctity. Thine elevated contemplation did not distract thee from the dolorous lot of this holy Bride of Christ, so tested in the century when thou wast born and died. The efforts of triumphant heresy in so many countries enkindled zeal in thy heart: obtain for us from the Holy Ghost this living sympathy for Catholic Truth that renders us sensible to its defeats and victories. It does not suffice for us to save our souls; we must desire with ardor and aid with all our means the advancement of the Reign of God on earth, the extirpation of heresy, and the exaltation of our mother the holy Church: it is in this condition that we are children of God. By thine examples, O Philip, inspire in us this ardor by which we must totally associate ourselves with the sacred interests of our common mother. Pray as well for the Church Militant which counted thee in her ranks as one of her best soldiers. Serve valiantly the cause of Rome, which holds as an honor the debt owed to thee for so many of thy services. You sanctified her during thy mortal life; hallow her again and defend her from heaven on high.

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Madonna and Child Appearing to St. Philip Neri, Giovanni Battista Piazzetti, c. 1725. (Source)