On this feast of St. Anthony the Abbot, I am reminded of a peculiar episode in the life of the saint that St. Jerome records. In full, it reads:
But to return to the point at which I digressed. The blessed Paul had already lived on earth the life of heaven for a hundred and thirteen years, and Antony at the age of ninety was dwelling in another place of solitude (as he himself was wont to declare), when the thought occurred to the latter, that no monk more perfect than himself had settled in the desert. However, in the stillness of the night it was revealed to him that there was farther in the desert a much better man than he, and that he ought to go and visit him. So then at break of day the venerable old man, supporting and guiding his weak limbs with a staff, started to go: but what direction to choose he knew not. Scorching noontide came, with a broiling sun overhead, but still he did not allow himself to be turned from the journey he had begun. Said he, I believe in my God: some time or other He will show me the fellow-servant whom He promised me. He said no more. All at once he beholds a creature of mingled shape, half horse half man, called by the poets Hippocentaur. At the sight of this he arms himself by making on his forehead the sign of salvation, and then exclaims, Holloa! Where in these parts is a servant of God living? The monster after gnashing out some kind of outlandish utterance, in words broken rather than spoken through his bristling lips, at length finds a friendly mode of communication, and extending his right hand points out the way desired. Then with swift flight he crosses the spreading plain and vanishes from the sight of his wondering companion. But whether the devil took this shape to terrify him, or whether it be that the desert which is known to abound in monstrous animals engenders that kind of creature also, we cannot decide.
Antony was amazed, and thinking over what he had seen went on his way. Before long in a small rocky valley shut in on all sides he sees a mannikin with hooked snout, horned forehead, and extremities like goats’ feet. When he saw this, Antony like a good soldier seized the shield of faith and the helmet of hope: the creature none the less began to offer to him the fruit of the palm-trees to support him on his journey and as it were pledges of peace. Antony perceiving this stopped and asked who he was. The answer he received from him was this: I am a mortal being and one of those inhabitants of the desert whom the Gentiles deluded by various forms of error worship under the names of Fauns, Satyrs, and Incubi. I am sent to represent my tribe. We pray you in our behalf to entreat the favour of your Lord and ours, who, we have learned, came once to save the world, and ‘whose sound has gone forth into all the earth.’ As he uttered such words as these, the aged traveller’s cheeks streamed with tears, the marks of his deep feeling, which he shed in the fullness of his joy. He rejoiced over the Glory of Christ and the destruction of Satan, and marvelling all the while that he could understand the Satyr’s language, and striking the ground with his staff, he said, Woe to you, Alexandria, who instead of God worships monsters! Woe to you, harlot city, into which have flowed together the demons of the whole world! What will you say now? Beasts speak of Christ, and you instead of God worship monsters. He had not finished speaking when, as if on wings, the wild creature fled away. Let no one scruple to believe this incident; its truth is supported by what took place when Constantine was on the throne, a matter of which the whole world was witness. For a man of that kind was brought alive to Alexandria and shown as a wonderful sight to the people. Afterwards his lifeless body, to prevent its decay through the summer heat, was preserved in salt and brought to Antioch that the Emperor might see it.
Let it never be said that the lives of the saints are boring. Artists, like Demonologists, have throughout the centuries returned to these scenes again and again. The Centaur shows up a lot, probably because it’s a subject that permits the artist to show off his own talents at depicting both human and equine anatomy. Yet we can also detect here a certain visual sensibility that can only be described as picturesque delight and fascination.
I sometimes wonder how all creation wasn’t annihilated by the Incarnation. I find it extraordinary and edifying that God, Being Itself, Omnipotent and Omniscient, Holiness Untouchable, chose to enter this world in a way that did not overwhelm us…that actually raised us, nothing that we are, to Divinity. As T.S. Eliot puts it, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Our continued existence after the Incarnation is a marvel of God’s infinite mercy and condescension as well as His love for us. The point is not even that we are sinful so much as that, in comparison with Infinite Being, we are cosmically insignificant. Yet God chooses to turn His gaze upon us, to love us, even to become one of us. We don’t reckon with this merciful condescension enough. The most fitting response is a profound sense of gratitude.
By contrast, the worst possible response to this love is ingratitude. How common is this sin! How often do we obscure God’s condescension with ungrateful thoughts and acts! Especially at this time of year.
Consider the Masses of Christmas. How many Catholics present themselves for communion who do not have the proper disposition to receive the grace of the sacrament? Worse, how many communions on this holy occasion are not merely unworthy, but actively sacrilegious? How many communions work death in the souls of those who receive at Christmas, a feast that should only impart grace and joy? Is there any other night when, all around the world, so many of the faithful take up the mantle of Judas and betray their Lord in the Sacrament of His eternal love? We ought to make special acts of reparation to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus throughout the Christmas season. Yet even here, we observe the tremendous condescension of God. He suffers Himself to be blasphemed in this manner the better to augment His glory in the latter end. And He endures all this for love.
I was disturbed to read on Twitter a further example of ingratitude in what should be a season of humble thanksgiving. A priest of the Lexington Diocese, Fr. Jim Sichka, posted a thread on the Feast of the Holy Family in which he wrote, among other things, that “What makes a family holy is living out the Gospel messages of love and hope, and pursuing big dreams for our children.” Without any contextual grounding in the sacraments, this vision of sanctification tends dangerously towards Pelagianism. Fr. Sichka, who is a Papal Missionary of Mercy, later buckled down on this error, writing, “Like it or not, there are many kinds of families. Every kind of family is called to be holy. And, since every person is made in God’s image, each is holy and has inherent dignity given by God.” He was not explicitly describing the baptized; it would seem that Fr. Sichko intends for us to take this statement as a universal descriptor. And while he is right to suggest that all families are called to holiness and that all possess God-given dignity, there is another, far more serious issue here.
Let us leave aside Fr. Sichko’s confusion of is and ought. The real problem here is the Pelagian notion that holiness is inherent in the human being. The opposite is true. In the state of original sin, we are naturally corrupt, deficient, concupiscent, and enslaved to the flesh, the world, and the passions. Holiness is not something we can achieve by our own effort alone. It is rather the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Ghost in us by sacramental grace, especially the grace granted in baptism. This gratuitous presence of the Holy Ghost in our souls is the only true way we can grow in virtue. We must water this growth by the salutary irrigation of deliberate ascesis. Holiness is not natural, but the supernatural repairing and building on nature.
It is astounding to find any priest suggesting that grace is unnecessary. It is unnerving to discover a priest who states in public that holiness is intrinsic to the human being. It is dismaying to read of a priest advancing opinions that will lead to lax preparation for holy communion. And it is tragic to find a priest deprecating, overlooking, or downplaying the singular grace vouchsafed to us in the Blessed Sacrament.
This is not a trivial error. It cuts to the very heart of what holiness is and how we acquire it. Is holiness the life of God within us? Or is it something less? Is it something that needs cultivation by sacramental grace and an ongoing life of ascetic endeavor? Or is it something we carry within us from birth? The answers make a difference about how we respond to the mysteries of this holy season. Christmas is preeminently a festival of grace. The utter gratuity of the Incarnation – and thus, of our redemption and sanctification in the sacraments – is the true meaning of Christmas. Pelagianism is unlike other heresies in that it adds a venomous ingredient to error; its essence is ingratitude, directly contrary to the spirit of this holy season.
Let us pray then for a lively faith in the mysteries of grace, for a more ardent jealousy of the Truth, for a renewed desire to follow the Lord in all things, for a generous spirit of adoring reparation, and for an unstinting gratitude as we contemplate the Divine Love who chose to save us by His Incarnation.
I refer my readers to two articles that have recently appeared in the Notre Dame Church Life Journal. The first, which came out about a month ago, is an excellent piece by Dr. Shaun Blanchard showing that our polemical use of the term “Jansenism” is seriously mistaken. The second is an article I wrote, a church-historical study in which I both defend the Jansenists from various degrading misconceptions as well as point out some parallels between their situation and our own. I’m also very pleased that the Catholic Herald picked it up for Wednesday’s “Morning Catholic Must-Reads.”
The pairing is not so implausible as we might immediately think. There are a number of similarities between Roman Catholicism (if not Anglo-Catholicism) and the Mormon church. Both believe in a visible Church governed hierarchically. Both have a more expansive view of revelation than Protestants, including a form of magisterial authority invested in the visible head of the Church. They share some common moral teachings. And both Catholics and Mormons seem to be some of the most enthusiastic disciples of Dr. Margaret Barker, drawing upon her “Temple theology” to enrich and illuminate their respective traditions.
At the surface, the two distinct faith traditions seem irreconcilable and perhaps they are. However, it is this blog’s purpose to explore, not the tensions between the two traditions, but Mormonism from an Anglo-Catholic-inspired reading of Church History, theology, art, music, liturgy, et cetera. This blog is written, mostly, by Latter-day Saints for a, mostly, Latter-day Saint audience. The Anglo-Catholic Mormon is a blog dedicated to the exploration of Latter-day Saint doctrine, theology, history, and culture from a Latter-day Saint perspective—albeit one influenced by Anglo-Catholic aesthetic, theological, musical, and liturgical sympathies.
From this keep, paladins, mages, and scholars publish key theological tracts based upon the teachings of the (Restored Catholic) Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their premise is that the ancient Christian Church, the universal or catholic church as established by Christ and led by the Prince of the Apostles, St Peter, is continued under the guidance of the current heir to the Throne of St Peter, in Salt Lake. Only by uncovering the mysteries of the past can they bring unity to the Mormon Bloggernacle.
The Anglo-Catholic Mormon
Catholics are likely to scoff at the claim that the See of St. Peter is truly located in Salt Lake City. Nevertheless, they ought not miss that unusual idea for what’s really interesting – namely, the fact that a Mormon is thinking (in public!) with these very Catholic categories.
It seems to me that this blog is engaging creatively with both Catholic and, as far as I can tell, Mormon teaching. The author ostensibly remains a Latter-Day Saint. I would of course urge him or her to convert to the Church of Rome – or at least seek Trinitarian baptism. Nevertheless, I am eager to see what he or she produces in the future.
To my readers: watch this space. I have no doubt that the author wishes to gain a Mormon rather than a specifically Catholic audience. Nevertheless, we Catholics (Roman and otherwise) should pay attention to what’s going on here. Perhaps we will see a Mormon Oxford Movement spring up out of these posts. And what will follow then?
don’t usually like to write two “Elsewhere” posts in a row, but
there’s a very good chapter talk on the Rule of St. Benedict
over at Vultus Christi that is, I believe, worthy of my readers’
attention. The author points to the spiritual fullness of the Rule. St.
Benedict gathers together the very best of the great spiritual traditions of
the Church. Put another, more historically correct way, his Rule has served as
the “wellspring” from which all manner of saints have drawn the
waters of life.
is the norm of the Christian life. It is the baptismal life as such, to which
every other charism must be compared. Those who do not have a priestly or
religious vocation are not exempt. Even those in the world must develop a
“monasticism of the heart,” a certain enmity towards the Flesh and a
love of God in the Mass. St. Benedict’s Rule, in its great flexibility and
simplicity, is a very good guide to achieving that inward state, itself an ever
more perfect conformity to Christ.
whole chapter is worth reading, but here’s an excerpt that struck me:
If you were or are attracted to Carmel, to Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross, or to Saint Thérèse and her Little Way, know that nothing of their teaching is missing from the Rule of Saint Benedict: purification of the heart, ceaseless prayer, secret exchanges with the Word, the Divine Bridegroom, and participation by patience in the Passion of Christ.
If you were or are drawn to Saint Dominic, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Catherine of Siena, know that the Rule of Saint Benedict calls you to the joy of the Gospel, to the love of chastity, to the quest for Truth, to confidence in the mercy of God for sinners, and to the ceaseless prayer of the heart represented by the Holy Rosary.
If you were or are fascinated by the Little Poor Man of Assisi, the Seraphic Saint Francis, know that the Rule of Saint Benedict offers you complete disappropriation to the point of having neither your body nor your will at your own disposal; that the Twelfth Degree of Humility is configuration to the Crucified Jesus; and that the adorable Body of Christ, the Sacred Host, shows you the perfection of monastic holiness in silence, hiddenness, poverty, and humility.
If you were or are charmed by Saint Philip and the Oratory, know that the Rule of Saint Benedict calls you to good cheer, to gentlemanly courtesy, to an ever greater infusion of the charity of God, that is the Holy Ghost.
Catholic who wants a deeper spiritual life cannot neglect the monastic tradition.
It brought forth all the others, and continues to enrich them. I have written
in the past on the likeness between St. Philip and St. Benedict.
Much more could be said for the monastic roots of each of the spiritual
families listed above.
can’t help but notice that one major stream of Latin Catholic spirituality is
absent from this list: Ignatian spirituality. Perhaps this is because the
Ignatian charism depends upon a subjective, individualistic, and pscyhologized
spiritual experience rather than the objective, external, communitarian piety
of liturgy that stands at the heart of St. Benedict’s Rule. This is not to say that
Ignatian spirituality is necessarily worse or that it cannot produce saints.
Nor is it to say that St. Ignatius could have produced his school without the
preceding sixteen centuries of spiritual development. But the assumptions of
Ignatian spirituality are so divorced from the monastic tradition as to
constitute a sui generis chapter in the history of Latin Spirituality.
St. Ignatius inaugurated a real break from the Western tradition of prayer and
ascesis, a break that was, in fact, little more than an epiphenomenon of the
advent of modernity in the prior century.
these historical-theological considerations are secondary to a deeper
admiration for the piece. May St. Benedict pray for all of us who would seek
the Face of God.
Ron Belgau has a very good summary of yet another scandal erupting in the American Church – this time, in the Archdiocese of New York. An excerpt:
Last Thursday, Catholic New York, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, published a notification that Fr. Donald Timone has (at long last) been removed from priestly ministry. He was suspended in December of last year, and the Archdiocesan Review Board only just determined that allegations that he sexually abused minors were credible and substantiated, though the diocese had paid for two six-figure settlements after abuse allegations in 2017. The story obviously implicates Cardinal Dolan. Last December, the New York Times reported that even after the Archdiocese of New York had paid out the settlements for sexual abuse of teenage boys by Fr. Timone, Cardinal Dolan kept him in ministry, despite the clear requirements of the Dallas Charter [pdf], and the fact that these were particularly egregious allegations: one of Fr. Timone’s victims, Timothy Murphy, had committed suicide.
Cardinal Dolan isn’t the only one whose clay ankles are on display in this inglorious affair. Fr. Timone’s depredations also implicate Courage, the bishops’ apostolate to “same-sex-attracted” Catholics. Here’s Ron with the pertinent details:
Fr. Timone was a longtime collaborator of Fr. John Harvey, OSFS, the founder of Courage. In addition to their close working relationship, Fr. Timone was a popular speaker at Courage conferences for 25 years. In 1989, he met with a small group of parents and other relatives of gay men, and helped them to organize Encourage, the Courage-affiliated ministry for parents and friends. He began editing the Courage Newsletter in 1992; in the pre-Internet era, the Newsletter was one of the most important ways for Courage to get its message out. From 1994 to 1995, while Fr. Harvey took a sabbatical to write The Truth about Homosexuality: The Cry of the Faithful, Fr. Timone served as interim executive director of Courage. (For more on Fr. Timone’s historic role in Courage, see Courage: A Ministry of Hope, published in 2018 by James Beers, a long-time member of Courage. Beers’s first effort at publicizing Courage was a 1995 article about Courage in the Staten Island Advance in which both he and Fr. Timone were interviewed.) Last Fall, Crux Magazine offered an overview of several ways that Fr. Harvey contributed to the sex abuse scandal. Fr. Timone’s story shows that Fr. Harvey’s past continues to haunt Courage today.
One hopes that Ron’s excellent reporting will cause members of Courage to demand a full ecclesiastical inquiry into the organization’s leadership and history. The fact that Fr. Harvey, Courage’s founder, publicly advocated for restoring sexually abusive priests to ministry already casts deep doubts about the apostolate’s relevance and ongoing role in the Church. This scandal only deepens that crisis. Ron explains why:
Fr. Timone’s case is not that significant in the scope of the abuse scandal in the United States as a whole. It is, however, quite significant for Courage. This case apparently involves the chair of Courage’s episcopal advisory board [Cardinal Dolan] ignoring the Dallas Charter and giving false information to other Catholic institutions in order to keep a former executive director of Courage in ministry, including ministry within Courage itself.
Ron Belgau, emphasis in original
It is, in short, a colossal failure from all the pertinent ecclesiastical authorities involved – especially the Cardinal Archbishop of New York. We can take comfort that Fr. Timone has been removed from the sacerdotal office at last. The fact that it took so long, however, speaks louder than this rear-guard action.
I offer the following propositions to my readers in a spirit of inquiry. Are these not edifying, pious, and – in many cases – straightforwardly true maxims? I have arranged them in thematic paragraphs, but beyond that, they do not issue from my hand. They are indeed far older maxims, drawn from the writings of certain noteworthy Catholic divines. Nevertheless, I should be very curious what my readers think of them – especially those with a theological background.
Are these not, on the whole, quite salutary? Do they not breathe the spirit of the best Fathers and Doctors, especially of those glorious Patriarchs of the West, SS Augustine and Thomas? Or, if anyone should find anything objectionable in them, what is the flaw? I ask sincerely. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.
In vain, O Lord, do You command, if You do not give what you command. Thus, O Lord, all things are possible to him for whom You make all things possible by effecting those same things in him.
All knowledge of God, even natural knowledge, even in the pagan philosophers, cannot come except from God; and without grace knowledge produces nothing but presumption, vanity, and opposition to God Himself, instead of the affections of adoration, gratitude, and love. As there is no sin without love of ourselves, so there is no good work without love of God.
A mark of the Christian Church is that it is catholic, embracing all the angels of heaven, all the elect and the just on earth, and of all times. What is the Church except an assembly of the sons of God abiding in His bosom, adopted in Christ, subsisting in His person, redeemed by His blood, living in His spirit, acting through His grace, and awaiting the grace of the future life? The Church or the whole Christ has the Incarnate Word as head but all the saints as members. The Church is one single man composed of many members, of which Christ is the head, the life, the subsistence and the person- it is one single Christ composed of many saints, of whom He is the sanctifier. There is nothing more spacious than the Church of God; because all the elect and the just of all ages comprise it.
It is useful and necessary at all times, in all places, and for every kind of person, to study and to know the spirit, the piety, and the mysteries of Sacred Scripture. The reading of Sacred Scripture is for all. The sacred obscurity of the Word of God is no reason for the laity to dispense themselves from reading it. The Lord’s Day ought to be sanctified by Christians with readings of pious works and above all of the Holy Scriptures. It is harmful for a Christian to wish to withdraw from this reading. It is an illusion to persuade oneself that knowledge of the mysteries of religion should not be communicated to women by the reading of Sacred Scriptures. Not from the simplicity of women, but from the proud knowledge of men has arisen the abuse of the Scriptures and have heresies been born. To snatch away from the hands of Christians the New Testament, or to hold it closed against them by taking away from them the means of understanding it, is to close for them the mouth of Christ. To forbid Christians to read Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels, is to forbid the use of light to the sons of light, and to cause them to suffer a kind of excommunication. To snatch from the simple people this consolation of joining their voice to the voice of the whole Church is a custom contrary to the apostolic practice and to the intention of God.
A method full of wisdom, light, and charity is to give souls time for bearing with humility. and for experiencing their state of sin, for seeking the spirit of penance and contrition, and for beginning at least to satisfy the justice of God, before they are reconciled.
To suffer in peace an excommunication and an unjust anathema rather than betray truth, is to imitate St. Paul; far be it from rebelling against authority or of destroying unity.
Nothing engenders a worse opinion of the Church among her enemies than to see exercised there an absolute rule over the faith of the faithful, and to see divisions fostered because of matters which do not violate faith or morals. Truths have descended to this, that they are, as it were, a foreign tongue to most Christians, and the manner of preaching them is, as it were, an unknown idiom, so remote is the manner of preaching from the simplicity of the apostles. and so much above the common grasp of the faithful; nor is there sufficient advertence to the fact that this defect is one of the greatest visible signs of the weakening of the Church and of the wrath of God on His sons. Stubbornness, investigation, and obstinacy in being unwilling either to examine something or to acknowledge that one has been deceived daily changes into an odor, as it were, of death, for many people, that which God has placed in His Church to be an odor of life within it, for instance, good books, instructions, holy examples, etc. Deplorable is the time in which God is believed to be honored by persecution of the truth and its disciples! This time has come…. To be considered and treated by the ministers of religion as impious and unworthy of all commerce with God, as a putrid member capable of corrupting everything in the society of saints, is to pious men a more terrible death than the death of the body. In vain does anyone flatter himself on the purity of his intentions and on a certain zeal for religion, when he persecutes honest men with fire and sword, if he is blinded by his own passion or carried away by that of another on account of which he does not want to examine anything. We frequently believe that we arc sacrificing an impious man to God, when we are sacrificing a servant of God to the devil.
Over at Church Life Journal, Andrew Kuiper has a tour-de-force article on the history and theology of Catholic Kabbalah. His review of four Catholic Kabbalists – Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin, Giles of Viterbo, and St. John Fisher – is a model of intellectual history. He does a great job showing the continuing relevance of Kabbalah for Catholic (and other Christian) thinkers throughout the centuries.
The piece is amply cited and provides several helpful theological considerations. I thought Kuiper’s nod towards Sophiology was particularly enlightening. If Christian Kabbalah has a place in Catholic theology today, I predict that it will be in the writings of latter-day Sophiologists.
If I were to offer a criticism of Kuiper’s piece, it would be a very minor one at that: he makes no reference to the works of Margaret Barker. Her research has shed a new light on the roots of Christianity and Jewish mysticism (in both its Merkabah and later Sephirotic developments) in the memory of the First Temple. Reading Kabbalistic texts through a Temple lens can ease their Christian interpretation. But I digress.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the article, for a historian of the period, is Kuiper’s various references to the Kabbalistic books written by these Christians of the 15th and 16th centuries. I would particularly keen on finding the text of Giles of Viterbo’s Shechina or Pico’s Heptaplus. Some of these hard-to-find volumes have never been translated into English.
It is not easy to summarize the teachings of the Jewish mystics, nor their Christian interpreters. Kuiper does both with commendable attention to detail and obvious competence, all while keeping things clear and concise enough for a lay reader. This article also provides a badly-needed defense of the respectability of Kabbalah as a field of study. Its bastardization in recent times, exemplified most clearly by Madonna et al., has led some to question whether Kabbalah is anything more than a gnostic mishmash of magic with Hebrew letters. I have heard colleagues dismiss it entirely as a field of serious inquiry for a historian or theologian. This tendency seems especially strong with Christian academics, many of whom retain outdated ideas about Jewish mysticism or who simply haven’t up with the post-Scholem rediscovery of Kabbalah. Kuiper’s intervention is a broadside against this boring complacency. It’s not exactly “a cruel angel’s thesis,” but it is one worth defending.
The Bishop of Northampton has announced that G.K. Chesterton’s cause for canonization has been dropped. There will be no St. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, his portly visage peering out of a halo over an altar in some out-of-the-way country church. There will be no Gilberttide Novenas, with each day dedicated to some tired and over-labored paradox the man squirted out for an article on H.G. Wells some time in the late Edwardian period. There will be no holy relics passed around – “The pipe he used to smoke with the Blessed Belloc!” – nor even little medals or fat statues cramming the shelves of the stores that specialize in such pious kitsch.
Good. The Bishop has decided wisely. The cause never should have been opened in the first place. Its continuation would represent, if not an abuse of the process, then a serious misstep in the liturgical and devotional life of the Church.
Quaeritur: Why do we raise saints to the altar?
Respondeo: There are three reasons.
1) To hallow and liturgically organize a pre-existing popular cult of a holy person.
2) To recognize that said holy person is in Heaven.
3) To raise up a holy soul as an example to the Faithful.
The third is insufficient on its own. The second is implied and proven in the act of canonization itself, though the inquiry into a saint’s alleged miracles is adjunct to it. The first is thus the most important, foundational reason for the whole process.
As the Bishop pointed out in his statement, there is essentially no local cult of G.K. Chesterton in either his diocese or, I would wager, in the rest of the United Kingdom. There is such a cult in America. I was once part of it, as a member, officer, and president of UVA’s G.K. Chesterton Society. I was thus shocked to discover when I moved to England that nobody – not even most Catholics I knew – read or particularly cared about Chesterton. The British, for reasons I have never really understood, ignore much of their own “spiritual heritage,” as Americans might think of it. Even the relics of St. Edmund Campion barely raised an eyebrow when they visited Oxford in Hilary Term 2018. In the chapel where they were offered for public veneration after a sparsely-attended Mass, I watched as less than half the room went forward to pay their respects to the Jesuit martyr. Can you imagine the crowds that the same small relic would draw in Chicago or Virginia or California?
I digress. The point is that instituting an official cult of Chesterton where no such popular cult exists is to vitiate the process of Beatification.
I remain agnostic as to whether Chesterton is in heaven. I hope he is, and I pray that he might achieve the Beatific Vision if he hasn’t already. But we’ll never know until we get to heaven ourselves, now that the cause won’t advance.
But, is Chesterton an example to the faithful? My own thoughts on the matter are mixed. Clearly, he was a great apologist who presented an appealing if idiosyncratic vision of orthodox Christianity. His conversion was to be commended, as all conversions are. There are, of course, some moral objections one could make. Lingering questions remain about Chesterton’s attitude towards Jews, though the issue is probably overblown. Some have pointed to his large frame as a sign of intemperance and gluttony. However, I think there is perhaps another matter at stake.
It must be said that Chesterton was, as far as we can tell, a very good man. He could be riotously funny. He was probably just the sort of fellow with whom one would enjoy getting a pint. But that quality of conviviality, even when wedded to right doctrine, does not equate to sanctity. If anything, it speaks to the opposite quality, a lack of the salutary ascesis proper to the Christian life. We hear much today of Chesterton’s alleged quote: “In Catholicism, the pint, the pipe and the Cross can all fit together.” Let us leave aside the question of whether the man actually said it (I have struggled to find the source), and accept that he did. The question we should be asking is whether it’s true. And if it is, is it really the sort of thing worth saying anyway? What are pints and pipes but little human vices and pleasures, the things of this world, the ordinary hobbies we enjoy from time to time? A Catholicism that fits them in is probably what most of us (myself included) can strive for, what most of us achieve. But surely that’s not the heroic, sacrificial faith of the Fathers. Would any of the Desert monastics or the martyrs say such a thing? Would any of them really consider it truly pious, if acceptable? Surely we can do better than a religion of the pub stool. Let us aim higher. Let us not canonize this symbol of comfortable Catholicism.
Perhaps the best reason to refrain from canonizing Chesterton was offered in 2013 by Melanie McDonagh:
The first argument against making him a saint is that he was a journalist (the profession he called the easiest in the world); it’s a contradiction in terms. And canonising the man would make his output unreadable. It would invest all the pieces he wrote in railway waiting rooms and Fleet Street bars with the leaden quality of official sanctity. He wrote some of the best literary criticism of the last century — give The Victorian Age in Literature a go — and it would forever be burdened with the approbation of the Catholic Church, which would put a great fat halo between the reader and the text.
I hate even the secular canonisation of the writers I love best — Flann O’Brien is a recent victim — with all the rites of summer schools, conferences and journals. It puts too much weight on their lightest utterances, ossifies their personalities and turns their perfectly lucid writing into the stuff of PhDs. In the case of Chesterton this phenomenon has an especially deadly quality, because the conferences and journals are bound up with contemporary Christian apologetics, a bit like what happened to C.S. Lewis. You might still just about be able to read the Father Brown stories with pleasure if they were billed as being by St Gilbert Keith Chesterton — but it would be despite the billing, by pushing it to the back of your mind. It would be a downright hurdle for secular readers.
Melanie McDonagh, “Why G.K. Chesterton shouldn’t be made a saint.”
Chesterton should not be canonized because doing so would establish him as an authority. Never mind that Chesterton’s famous aphorisms and paradoxes were so often little more than the trite (or even false) quips of a journalist. I have in mind quite another matter; canonization would effectively insulate Chesterton from serious criticism, literary or otherwise. Is that really an effective tribute to a man who was, by all accounts, a brilliant mind? Are we doing him any great service by placing his work under the light of a nimbus? Wouldn’t we rather be paying him the greatest of all insults to a writer, namely, to place him beyond serious and fair consideration? On the other hand, perhaps McDonagh is right – canonizing Chesterton could instead spark a lugubrious academic cottage industry, just as the (American) Evangelical discovery of C.S. Lewis has turned that first-rate children’s novelist and second-rate Anglican theologian into big business. I can only imagine Chesterton would find it all extremely drab.
We should not be too quick to canonize, especially when it comes to writers. I love the books of Flannery O’Connor and find much that is edifying in her fiction. I believe she probably died a holy death. But I don’t think she should be canonized; if a cause were to open, it should be based entirely on the merit of her sufferings.
Julien Green thought that the very act of writing a novel – a good one anyway, that deals with real human experience and the truths of the human condition – inevitably implicates the author in mortal sin. One has to imagine evil, and in portraying it, one engages with it at some level. I don’t know whether that’s true. I have no novels on my CV. But his statement speaks to a deeper point about the act of writing. We cannot escape from the fallibility and fragility of our own humanity, nor a certain fallenness inscribed into the fractured and slipshod structures of our language. This is why criticism is a good thing. Criticism, even pointed criticism, is a sign that one takes an author’s work seriously. It also keeps an author within the bonds of a community of writers, each of whom shares the same basic limitations even as their individual geniuses differ. These are truths that Chesterton himself understood; he, too, was a literary critic.
But the work of canonized writers retains an implicit authority. Sure, philosophers and theologians might dispute over a point in St. Thomas, but rarely do they state outright that the Angelic Doctor is wrong (and he was on several occasions). One could point to other examples. There is a degree to which such deference is acceptable. One of the Church’s great strengths is her long memory and the deposit of theology that acts as a shield around the deposit of faith. Yet this quality of authority is entirely inappropriate with a figure like Chesterton, whose voluminous works largely consist of trivial journalism. True, he made a few good points in Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. There are strange parts of Orthodoxy, too, that make little sense and must be taken for what they are – Chesterton’s deeply personal attempt to understand his faith. And some of his writings are simply bad, wrong, or unreadable. If we take Chesterton seriously as a thinker and a writer, we should say so.
I realize that many of my readers, especially British ones, will think I am belaboring the point. If there is no popular cult, then are we really in danger of such an uncritical turn? I would direct such readers to the G.K. Chesterton Society’s website. I would direct them to the inclusion of Chesterton in Bishop Barron’s Catholicism: The Pivotal Players alongside objectively more important figures like St. Augustine, St. Benedict, and Cardinal Newman. I would direct them to that inexcusably hagiographic study of Chesterton’s milieu, Joseph Pearce’s Literary Converts. There may be no local cult per se, but there is a Chestertonian cult of personality spread across the Anglophone church. Especially in America.
The hallowed place Chesterton holds in the hearts of American Catholics is a reflection of a deeper American fetishization of English Christianity. This tendency tends to erect little idols of men such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Mons. Robert Hugh Benson (a deeply bizarre man of unsavory connections), and others.
I believe this tendency reflects a deep cultural anxiety proper to both Americans in general and American Catholics in particular. Unlike Europeans and South Americans, we live in an unhallowed, “historically empty” landscape. We US Catholics carry on an agon with European culture, especially British culture, because we feel deep down that we have never developed an authentically rooted version of American Catholicism. There are few saints native to our shores; the recent popular cult of St. Kateri Tekakwitha is a positive development, as we move beyond the lineup of immigrant clergy who used to make up most of the canon of American saints. If Fr. Augustus Tolton is canonized, all the better. But there remains an unspoken if everywhere manifest anxiety about the authenticity of American Catholicism. Its identity is new, still forming, and thus up for grabs. One effect is a relentless, internecine preoccupation with the culture wars. Liberals and conservatives in the Church largely map on to our broader political axis. But there’s another method of identity-formation, deployed primarily by those on the right end of that spectrum. We borrow the British writers as if they’re our heritage. But this borrowing blinds us to the faults of the men (and it is largely men) whom we take as representatives of a common spiritual ancestry with the Brits. Lewis and Tolkien are emblematic of this trend, and he’s not even Catholic. Yet they are invoked breathlessly by conservative Catholics and Christians in the same way that Harry Potter has become a shibboleth of secular liberals. Chesterton’s memory is in danger of becoming just another tribal marker.
I don’t claim any special insight beyond my compatriots. However, I do think that living in England for the better part of two years has disillusioned me of my former support for this tendency. Chesterton is bigger (in many ways) than the narrow role he has been asked to play by American conservatives. Let him rest in peace, let us read him on his own terms, and let us preserve the altars of the Church from a dubious canonization.
I have, by the merciful grace of God, passed my M.Phil in Theology at Oxford. I could not have done so without the abundant help of my supervisors and tutors, principally Dr. Sarah Apetrei, as well as the many friends and family who supported me throughout the course of my studies there. Latterly this endeavor has caused me to neglect my blogging, for which I must beg pardon of my readers. Editing, submissions, an examination, travelling, and the arduous business of moving back across the Atlantic has distracted me. So has the bittersweet task of saying goodbye to so many friends, men and women I will miss in the years to come.
I can understand why our soon-to-be-Saint Newman had so much trouble getting Oxford out of his blood. The place is a mirage in silver and stone. To have dwelt in such a dream-city for so long a time, to have been part of its inner life, to have shaped it according to one’s own character and to be shaped by it in turn, to watch the sun and the rain succeed in their seasons over streets imbued everywhere with a boundless sense of eternity…yes, I can see why Newman was always looking for a path back to this northern Eden. A Papal angel kept him from the gate. More prosaic barriers have turned me aside, namely, the prospects of an academic career in America.
But, in some way, the greater grief is leaving the United Kingdom. Shakespeare called Albion a swan’s nest in a stream. Having traveled from London to Birmingham, from Cardiff to York, from Tenby to Bournemouth, from Cambridge to Edinburgh, from Bath to Stratford, from Walsingham to Wakefield, in short, across the whole face of this country, I can start to see what he means. Britain possesses a peculiar beauty in grey-green and gold, something delicate and immortal that only reveals itself to an attentive foreigner. I shall miss it.
More than that, I’ll miss the many friends I made in my two years abroad. Not just English either, though there were plenty of those – but also Canadians, Russians, Australians, Irish (both orange and green), French, Armenians, Italians, Romanians, Scots, Sri Lankans, Welsh, Poles, Chinese, and even some of my fellow countrymen. The story of my time in Oxford would not be complete without them. I will feel the absence of each, some more keenly than others.
I suppose this is as good a time as ever to take stock of some of my travels through life at large. I am 24 years old. I have visited 12 countries beyond the borders of the United States:
The United Kingdom France Ireland Belgium The Netherlands Italy Austria The Czech Republic Hungary Romania Bermuda Vatican City
And 14 if one includes layovers and train connections in Germany and Switzerland. I have stood at the banks of the following rivers:
The Thames in London The Thames in Oxford (Isis) The Thame in Dorchester (before it becomes the Thames) The Cherwell The Liffey The Seine The Amstel The Arno The Rhône The Saône The Tiber The Danube The Lys The Usk The Avon in Bath The Loire The Cam
I have spent quite a lot of time in churches. A few favorites in England include the Oxford Oratory, the York Oratory, the Birmingham Oratory, Magdalen College Chapel, Worcester College Chapel, Oriel College Chapel, Merton College Chapel, St. Stephen’s House Chapel, St. Etheldreda’s, Holborn, and the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. My single favorite church in England remains the Brompton Oratory, as it has been since that first June day I stepped into its vast and holy darkness, four years ago.
I have so far managed to get to the following Cathedrals (and Abbeys) in England, of which the first two are my favourites:
Winchester Cathedral Gloucester Cathedral Norwich Cathedral Oxford Cathedral St. Paul’s Cathedral York Minster Wakefield Cathedral Salisbury Cathedral St. Giles’s, Edinburgh Westminster Cathedral Westminster Abbey Bath Abbey Malmesbury Abbey
Plus some lovely country churches – East Coker, Burford, Stow-on-the-Wold, Binsey, and my very favorite, St. Swithun’s, Compton Beauchamp.
In Ireland, Silverstream Priory remains the most spiritually nourishing place I have ever been; its beauty and its holiness are always palpable.
My travels on the Continent have been full of their own various ecclesiastical delights, so I’ll only mention a few highlights. My favorite cathedral in the world is St. Bavo’s, Ghent, which represents the perfect fusion of Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, and 19th Century styles. In France, the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal in the Rue du Bac, Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Lyon Cathedral, Notre-Dame de Fourvière, and Saint-Just in Lyon are a few holy places I will not easily forget. Recently, I visited De Krijtberg in Amsterdam, which is the best example of painted Neo-Gothic I have seen beyond the Sainte-Chapelle. Italy is too full of wonderful churches to count, as are the old Hapsburg lands. If I were to choose a favorite in each, I suppose I would have to list the Chiesa Nuova (St. Philip Neri’s home and final resting place) in Italy, as well as Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria, the Matthias Church in Hungary, and St. Vitus Cathedral in the Czech Republic. Though, to be fair, I visited several of these a few years ago rather than on this late sojourn in Europe.
I list these travels not out of any boasting, and, perhaps, not even for my readers. If anything, I do it for myself. I am more interested in remembering these places; writing about them has given me occasion to reminisce, to try and recapture something of the pleasure they gave me once.
I have been very blessed in life. I praise the Good Lord for allowing me the chance to see a bit of the world, to have done useful work, to have read interesting books, to have seen beautiful things, to have drank some good wine, and to have known such wonderful people. What more can one ask for in this brief life?