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.
Richard Crashaw, one of the great Catholic poets of the seventeenth century, is a perennial source of inspiration. His verse preserves a mystical sensibility that is as refreshing today as it was when it was first composed in the Baroque era. This selection, “A Song,” is one of my favorites. I first had to memorize it many years ago in an English class on prayers (at Mr. Jefferson’s famously secular University, no less). I keep returning to it only to find new riches and new consolations. It seems eminently suited to our mid-Lenten moment, when the faithful yearn to see the face of the Resurrected and Glorified Christ.
LORD, when the sense of thy sweet grace Sends up my soul to seek thy face. Thy blessed eyes breed such desire, I dy in love’s delicious Fire.
O love, I am thy Sacrifice. Be still triumphant, blessed eyes. Still shine on me, fair suns! that I Still may behold, though still I dy.
Though still I dy, I live again; Still longing so to be still slain, So gainfull is such losse of breath. I dy even in desire of death.
Still live in me this loving strife Of living Death and dying Life. For while thou sweetly slayest me Dead to my selfe, I live in Thee.
Today is the Anglican commemoration of George Herbert, the great English cleric and metaphysical poet of the 17th century. He died on March 1st, 1633. In honor of this bard of the spirit, I offer to my readers one of my favorite Herbert poems. Every time I return to it, I find new edification.
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age, God’s breath in man returning to his birth, The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage, The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r, Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear, The six-days world transposing in an hour, A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear; Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, Exalted manna, gladness of the best, Heaven in ordinary, man well drest, The milky way, the bird of Paradise, Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood, The land of spices; something understood.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous tradition of Christmas in America is decorating a Christmas tree. Whether live or artificial, green or white, festooned in tinsel or bedecked with bells, the Christmas tree is the image that adorns all our houses and heralds the coming of the Yuletide. And not just the houses of Christians. Many who celebrate Christmas as a merely secular holiday will still put up a tree. It just wouldn’t really feel like Christmas without it.
Yet the Christian discerns in this symbol something more than just a festive sign of the season.
First, a short excursus about symbols in general. Metaphor opens the speaker to the experience of “augmented reality,” though not at all in the way that phrase has come to be understood in the world of cheap tricks and tacky technology. Pokemon Go is not a metaphor. It’s just an add-on. It discerns nothing essential and establishes no real connections between unlike objects. Metaphor can. The truer the metaphor, the firmer the connection. It’s a dialectical process. Or, if you like a Trinitarian one: two unlike things are drawn together by the speaker, thus forming an entirely new third.
The Sophianic potential of language lies in metaphor. Name and metaphor permit us to imprint, image, and discern a level of reality beyond the merely immediate and sensible. That is why metaphor is impossible in the face of the Beatific Vision. All words die away, since the soul experiences the most heightened level of reality – Being itself.
Sophianic vision relies upon this kind of metaphorical thinking. Without dissolving the dogmas of the faith, Sophiology reads them sideways so as to gain an insight into the mystical realities more properly understood via poetry than, say, the logical language of the manuals. American Sophiologist Dr. Michael Martin has called for a “poetic metaphysics” by which we more potently discern the presence of God in His Wisdom, seen throughout Creation.
What would this “poetic metaphysics” look like beyond textual confines? That is, what would it look like if people actually lived out this search for the Wisdom of God?
For one thing, the soul that sees all in Wisdom will be always immersed in metaphor. The eyes of their heart would discern the connection of lower things to the higher. This is not mere cataphasis, the use of images in prayer. I mean that the daily impressions of life are experienced as taking place on more than one level of reality. The events of the day are read as symbols and metaphors. We encounter this in the life of the Ven. Seraphina di Dio:
“…Anything I looked at I was able to turn into a meditation… When I saw it raining, I thought of the refreshment which the rain brought to the earth and that without it the earth would be arid. I would say: ‘If the water of divine grace did not fall on the soul, it would dry up without providing the fruits of good works.’ … The sight of fish swimming in the sea made me remember how the saints are immersed in God… And in such wise everything, even the slightest things, served me for my spiritual nourishment.”
-Ven. Seraphina di Dio
Such is one example of sapiential living. We might turn to another. Over at Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has furnished a charming passage from St. John of Karpathos:
Nothing is more weak and powerless than a spider. It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and extreme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its own work. To those who love idleness it says, in effect : ‘If anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat’ (2 Thess. 3 : 1o). The spider is far more silent than Pythagoras, whom the ancient Greeks admired more than any other philosopher because of the control that he exercised over his tongue. Although Pythagoras did not talk with everyone, yet he did speak occasionally in secret with his closest friends; and often he lavished nonsensical remarks on oxen and eagles. He abstained altogether from wine and drank only water. The spider, however, achieves more than Pythagoras: it never utters a single word, and abstains from water as well as from wine. Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering about according to its fancy, always hard at work – nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord, ‘who dwells on high but sees what is lowly’ (Ps . 1 1 3 : 5-6 . LXX), extends His providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.
-St. John of Karpathos
One could name many other saints who exhibit this Sophianic tendency of vision through metaphor. For St. Paul of the Cross, as Fr. Faber notes,
“…everything served to remind him of God, and he used to imagine that all creatures cried out to entreat the love of man for Him who made them. He was often observed, when walking in the fields, to gaze earnestly at the flowers as he went along and to touch them with his stick, saying, ‘Hold your tongues; hold your tongues!’ And he used to tell his religious that the flowers were always calling upon them to lift up their hearts in love and adoration toward their heavenly Creator.”
-Fr. Faber, All For Jesus, Ch. 6, pg. 153
When carefully fostered in the soul – usually by ascetic rigors and conscious efforts of love – it ceases to be merely Sophianic and takes on an iconographic character, such that everything in our field of sensible experience becomes a symbol of union with the higher realm it represents. Namely, God. Thus can we preserve the presence of God in our waking hours out of prayer.
So what does this have to do with Christmas trees?
The decoration of a Christmas tree is, in a certain sense, a concrete realization of this process. Bringing a part of the natural world into our home imprints something of the human and thus of the spiritual. We can see this with animals who have been domesticated. Cats and dogs become part of the family. We discern their personalities. They are not just “dog” but “Buster” or “Gabby.” Thus, name and metaphor go hand in hand in elevating the merely natural to something approximating the human.
We don’t personalize Christmas trees. But in placing them in our homes and filling them with glittering lights and baubles, we heighten the tree into something more than what it was. As we were commanded to do in Eden, we improve the creation and make it radiant. We lend it a new beauty, the fruit of our Godlike creativity. We place a star or an angel at its peak, and a reminder of Our Lord’s Nativity at its base. Thus we turn it into a little Tree of Life, reaching between Heaven and Earth, the natural world manifested in the splendor of its potential divinization.*
In other words, the power of metaphor allows us to experience the tree as something more than what it is at the purely material level. It becomes for us an icon of Holy Wisdom, of Christ abiding in His redeemed Creation.
I am reminded of today’s O Antiphon.
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.
-O Antiphon for 17 Dec.
These words are manifested in so many ways throughout time and space. They don’t just belong to Advent. Yet the Christmas Tree can (if we come to it with a Sophianic imagination) serve as one meditative example of Wisdom “sweetly ordering all things” in this holy season.
It’s no surprise that Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov wrote favorably of the Christmas Tree.
*I realize of course that not all families use real trees, and that they don’t all place a Nativity under it. But even here, the power of metaphor enters in. In calling an assemblage of wire or aluminum or plastic a “tree,” we are already entering into the world of metaphor and artifice. In that case, we are only one degree removed from what I have described above.
A view of the Bodleian Library from Radcliffe Square. Photo taken by author.
Fr. Frederick William Faber, that great son of St. Philip, was one of the many Oxford converts. He was a Balliol man who later became a fellow of University College, where he embarked on an ecclesiastical career as an Anglican. Later, of course, he came to the Church of Rome and founded the London Oratory. But as I am now settling back into Oxford, I thought it might my readers might enjoy a few of his poems about life at the University. I’ll probably break the collection up into a few different posts. Although Faber was later famous as a hymn-writer, in his youth he was a Romantic poet who won the admiration of none other than Wordsworth, whom he met in the Lake District. Faber’s style may be rather too Victorian for our tastes today. They also represent his spirituality at a very immature stage, when he was still an Anglican. The contrast between “College Chapel’s” rather pathetic final line and Faber’s “Muscular” pose in “College Hall” amuses, to say the least. But occasionally, as in “College Garden,” his sensuality and yearning anticipate the best of the Decadents who came at the end of the century. Finally, I’ll add that Faber’s romantic attachment to the legends and traditions of the English medieval monastics once again confirms my point that there remains an abiding affinity between the Oratorian and Benedictine charisms.
A shady seat by some cool mossy spring,
Where solemn trees close round, and make a gloom,
And faint and earthy smells, as from a tomb,
Unworldly thoughts and quiet wishes bring:
Such hast thou been to me each morn and eve;
Best loved when most thy call did interfere
With schemes of toil or pleasure, that deceive
And cheat young hearts; for then thou mad’st me feel
The holy Church more night, a thing to fear.
Sometimes, all day with books, thoughts proud and wild
Have risen, till I saw the sunbeams steal
Through painted glass at evensong, and weave
Their threefold tints upon the marble near,
Faith, prayer, and love, the spirit of a child!
Still may the spirit of the ancient days
Rest on our feasts, nor self-indulgence strive
Nor languid softness to invade the rule,
Manly, severe, and chaste—the hardy school
Wherein our might fathers learnt to raise
Their souls to Heaven, and virtue best could thrive.
They, who have felt how oft the hour is past
In idle, worldly talk, would fain recall
The brazen Eagle that in times of yore
Was wont to stand in each monastic hall;
From whence the Word, or some old Father’s lore,
Or Latin hymns that spoke of sin and death
Were gravely read; and lowly-listening faith
In silence grew, at feast as well as fast.
Sacred to early morn and evening hours,
Another chapel reared for other prayers,
And full of gifts,—smells after noon-day showers,
When bright-eyed birds look out from leafy bowers,
And natural perfumes shed on midnight airs,
And bells and old church-clocks and holy towers,
All heavenly images that cluster round.
The rose, and pink acacia, and green vine
Over the fretted wall together twine,
With creepers fair and many, woven up
Into religious allegories, made
All out of strange Church meanings, and inlaid
With golden thoughts, drunk from the dewy cup
Of morns and evenings spent in that dear ground!
A churchyard with a cloister running round
And quaint old effigies in act of prayer,
And painted banners mouldering strangely there
Where mitered prelates and grave doctors sleep,
Memorials of a consecrated ground!
Such is this antique room, a haunted place
Where dead men’s spirits come, and angels keep
Long hours of watch with wings in silence furled.
Early and late have I kept vigil here:
And I have seen the moonlight shadows trace
Dim glories on the missal’s blue and gold,
The work of my monastic sires that told
Of quiet ages men call dark and drear,
For Faith’s soft light is darkness to the world.
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.
I have a very exciting if somewhat tardy announcement. I have some poetry being published in Volume II of Jesus the Imagination, the hot new Sophiological journal by Angelico Press. There’s plenty of other really good material in the journal, too, including work by friends of mine. Plus an interview with the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus! What’s not to love? As far as I’m aware I’m making no money whatsoever off this venture, but I still encourage you to buy a copy (or two, or three) if you want to read my contributions…or just the far more brilliant materials you’ll find there, too. Either way, I can promise you that Jesus the Imagination won’t disappoint!
A portrait of Charles Williams: poet, critic, lecturer, editor, author, sorcerer, mystic (Source)
The theme for this volume is Marriage. As I’m sure many of you know, marriage is an extraordinarily deep mystery in the heart of the Church’s sacramental life, mystical being, quotidien experience, and esoteric practice. To celebrate, I am reproducing here a poem by Charles Williams that scratches the surface of Matrimony’s essence. Williams, a friend of T.S. Eliot and fellow-Inkling to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, was a profound mystical thinker who kept returning to nuptial themes over the course of his career. The poem below comes from his first poetry collection, The Silver Stair (1912), a slim book I recently examined in the Bodleian. Enjoy.
Of Marriage and of its Priesthood
Here shall no pagan foot nor claw of beast
Enter; nor wizard sorcery be seen.
But sometime here have all true lovers been,
Nor hath the tale of outland riders ceased.
With hands of consecration now the priest
Exalts the holy sacrament between
The altar lights. Now, if your souls be clean,
Draw near: Himself Love gives you in His feast.
Whose voice in solemn ritual lifted up
Praises the Name of Love? Whose hands have blest
For you, His votaries, the mysterious Cup,
And set before you the ordained Food?
Voice of Himself, to narrow vows professed,
And hands of His adorable maidenhood.
Rear a hill in my heart, O God,
from which Thou might ascend.
But o! How swift I overshoot
and rush on to the end.
For first Thou must come hallow it
with that most kingly flood,
the pearls surpassing every price,
Thine own most precious blood.
And though I wander far, O Lord,
from Thy most holy fount,
yet never shall I lose the sight
of Thine eternal mount.
The shadows of the day grow long
and silence takes the land;
still do I hope in Thy sweet song
and Thy high priestly hand.
“The Lord ascends with gladsome noise
and hath taken the better part.”
So runs the word, so I rejoice,
for He rises there in my heart.
“Saint George and the Dragon,” Paolo Uccello, c. 1459 (Source)
St George he was for England,
And before he killed the dragon
He drank a pint of English ale
Out of an English flagon.
For though he fast right readily
In hair-shirt or in mail,
It isn’t safe to give him cakes
Unless you give him ale.
St George he was for England,
And right gallantly set free
The lady left for dragon’s meat
And tied up to a tree;
But since he stood for England
And knew what England means,
Unless you give him bacon
You mustn’t give him beans.
St George he is for England,
And shall wear the shield he wore
When we go out in armour
With battle-cross before.
But though he is jolly company
And very pleased to dine,
It isn’t safe to give him nuts
Unless you give him wine.