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.
As part of my Lenten Spirituality Series, here is Dame Julian of Norwich’s meditation on the thirst of Christ, Chapter XVII of Revelations of Divine Love:
“How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, and all my bliss, and all my joy suffer?
And in this dying was brought to my mind the words
of Christ: I thirst.
For I saw in Christ a double thirst: one bodily; another spiritual…
For this word was shewed for the bodily thirst: the which I understood was caused by failing of moisture. For the blessed flesh and bones was left all alone without blood and moisture. The blessed body dried alone long time with wringing of the nails and weight of the body. For I understood that for tenderness of the sweet hands and of the sweet feet, by the greatness, hardness, and grievousness of the nails the wounds waxed wide and the body sagged, for weight by long time hanging. And [therewith was] piercing and pressing of the head, and binding of the Crown all baked with dry blood, with the sweet hair clinging, and the dry flesh, to the thorns, and the thorns to the flesh drying; and in the beginning while the flesh was fresh and bleeding, the continual sitting of the thorns made the wounds wide. And furthermore I saw that the sweet skin and the tender flesh, with the hair and the blood, was all raised and loosed about from the bone, with the thorns where-through it were rent in many pieces, as a cloth that were sagging, as if it would hastily have fallen off, for heaviness and looseness, while it had natural moisture. And that was great sorrow and dread to me: for methought I would not for my life have seen it fall. How it was done I saw not; but understood it was with the sharp thorns and the violent and grievous setting on of the Garland of Thorns, unsparingly and without pity. This continued awhile, and soon it began to change, and I beheld and marvelled how it might be. And then I saw it was because it began to dry, and stint a part of the weight, and set about the Garland. And thus it encircled all about, as it were garland upon garland. The Garland of the Thorns was dyed with the blood, and that other garland [of Blood] and the head, all was one colour, as clotted blood when it is dry. The skin of the flesh that shewed (of the face and of the body), was small-rimpled  with a tanned colour, like a dry board when it is aged; and the face more brown than the body.
I saw four manner of dryings: the first was bloodlessness;
the second was pain following after; the third,
hanging up in the air, as men hang a cloth to dry; the
fourth, that the bodily Kind asked liquid and there was
no manner of comfort ministered to Him in all His woe
and distress. Ah! hard and grievous was his pain, but
much more hard and grievous it was when the moisture
failed and began to dry thus, shrivelling.
These were the pains that shewed in the blessed head:
the first wrought to the dying, while it had moisture;
and that other, slow, with shrinking drying, [and] with
blowing of the wind from without, that dried and pained
Him with cold more than mine heart can think.
And other pains—for which pains I saw that all is
too little that I can say: for it may not be told.
The which Shewing of Christ’s pains filled me full of
pain. For I wist well He suffered but once, but [this
was as if] He would shew it me and fill me with mind
as I had afore desired. And in all this time of Christ’s
pains I felt no pain but for Christ’s pains. Then thought-me:
I knew but little what pain it was that I asked; and,
as a wretch, repented me, thinking: If I had wist what
it had been, loth me had been to have prayed it. For methought
it passed bodily death, my pains.
I thought: Is any pain like this? And I was answered in my reason: Hell is another pain: for there is despair. But of all pains that lead to salvation this is the most pain, to see thy Love suffer. How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, all my bliss, and all my joy, suffer? Here felt I soothfastly  that I loved Christ so much above myself that there was no pain that might be suffered like to that sorrow that I had to [see] Him in pain.
On March 16th, 1583, St. Philip Neri worked one of his greatest miracles. Having been called to the deathbed of Paolo, the young scion of the noble Massimo family, he arrived to find that he was too late. The youth was half an hour dead and, what’s worse, unshriven. But time and its corrosive powers are nothing before the grace of the Almighty. Thirty minutes of sorrow were given as the short prelude to a feat that would win this servant of God a heavenly renown and, for the youth himself, an eternity of joy.
We can imagine the scene well enough. The wailing mother, pressing her tear-stained face into the breast of her grieving husband, the servants praying for their dear lost lord, the doctors already retreating with a grimace of embarassment at their failure. Into this scene walks the silent old priest, calm as the eye of a hurricane. He receives the news with a stoic frown. Then, lifting his eyes in prayer, imploring the power of the hand that once raised Lazarus, he breathes upon the eyes so lately shut. He whispers,
This invocation brings forth a mystery beyond reckoning – the boy stirs and wakes, as if he had only nodded off a few minutes before.
We can only imagine the joy that fell upon the hearts of the mourners. What stunned clamor must have erupted in that little chamber! Yet the saint is ever in control. He commands all to leave, that he might hear Prince Paolo’s confession. Having cleansed the boy’s soul with the assoiling balms of penance, St. Philip spoke to him for thirty minutes. Would that we had some record of their conversation! There can be no doubt that the solicitous confessor was preparing the soul to meet God.
For that is the strangest thing of all in the story of the Paolo Massimo’s resurrection. It was only temporary. The thirty minutes of death are undone, yes, but only for about another thirty minutes of life. The parents of the young prince were, no doubt, bitterly disappointed at this second loss, a departure made even more painful by the desperate hope it stirred in their hearts.
Yet it was a miracle indeed – and it shows us a salutary truth about miracles. They are not for our comfort. They are not granted to appease our desires, however noble. Providence instead works all things, natural and graced, with only one end in view – the greater glory of God. St. Philip was sent to bring Paolo Massimo into eternal life, not to grant him any more time on earth. That was his duty, the quintessential duty of every priest.
We live in an age when the priesthood seems so mired in scandal and banality, torn this way and that by the worldly ambitions of the clergy, stained with sins of every kind. Lust, violence, abuse, pride, vanity, greed, division, cruelty, party faction – all of these wicked tendencies and more have obscured the nobility of the sacerdotal office, a dignity drawn entirely from the crucified Heart of our Great High Priest.
That is why we must remember the story of St. Philip and Paolo Massimo. It reminds us of why we have priests – of what the priest must do, and of what he must be.
The priest is a conduit of grace. His steps, his works, his words, his hands do not belong to him, but to God. They step into the wounded rhythm of our natural life and bear the healing presence of the supernatural. They raise us from the dead, but only that we might make a better death in the end.
St. Philip’s miracle today is commemorated with a proper Mass. May he pray that all of us might rise from the living death of sin and enter a dying life of grace.
The inimitable John McManners, late Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Oxford, provides a window into the world of late Ancien Régime piety (or, rather, its dearth) in his monumental Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France. He writes:
“To what extent was the fast of Lent observed? It was commonly said that the austerities of the penitential season were endured only by the poor. According to the Lenten pastoral letter of the archbishop of Sens in 1779, the rich often obtained medical certificates allowing them to eat what they liked. This was the fashionable thing to do. ‘Look at our bourgeois citizen and his wife in their (draper’s) shop, observing Lent strictly,’ said teh Jesuit Père Croisset in his Parallel des moeurs de ce siècle et la morale de Jesus-Christ (1727): ‘their fortune changes…and scarcely has the tape measure dropped from their hands than you see them putting on airs like people of quality and asking for dispensations from fasting.’ This class distinction was observed even in the kitchens of the Bastille: on the first Friday of his imprisonment, Marmontel gloomily at the meatless meal provided, not knowing that it had been meant for his servant. In any case, there were plenty of succulent dishes within the rules, for those who could afford them.
“Lent was the season to have tubs of fresh butter sent in from the countryside, and to ensure plentiful supplies of fish and water birds (the tes of an allowable fowl was: did the gravy remain uncongealed after fifteen minutes? – so a bishop gravely advised Mme Victoire, Louis XV’s pious but comfortable daughter). The peasant, whose existence is a perpetual Lent anyway, said Voltaire, awaits episcopal permission to eat his farmyard eggs, while the bishop himself looks forward to expensive dishes of soles. Certainly, things were well organized at Versailles. ‘A ray of grace has descended on us,’ wrote the duc de la Vallière in April 1756; ‘we fasted for three days a week during the whole of Lent, but on condition that we suffered no deprivations.’ Preachers were well aware that those with money and leisure could organize an attractive Lent for themselves: an occasional walk in a procession (a penitent’s garb was no disadvantage to a good-looking woman), extra time in bed to recuperate from privations, and food more delicately cooked and served than usual. ‘For some – God grant that there are none in my congregation today,’ thundered the Oratorian Surian, ‘Lent is a more agreeable time, in a sophisticated way, than the other seasons of the year.'”
“What a shock, Maximiliana has to be the life of the party AGAIN.”
“I think the real trouble in the Church today is the shortage of lace.”
Princess-Abbess Christina zu Mecklenburg isn’t angry. She’s just disappointed.
“I’m not like a regular Princess-Abbess, I’m a cool Princess-Abbess. Observe my nude statues, dogs, and trendy collection of seashells.”
Winged headdresses are in this year.
“This crosier was made by fifty leper goldsmiths on a Greek island owned by the Doge of Venice. My uncle, the Cardinal of Trieste and Titular Abbot of Unter-Festschrift, gave it to me at my accession.”
Therese Natalie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Princess-Abbess of Gandersheim, with her pendulous string of pearls, miniature portrait bracelet, powdered blue watered silk sash, ermine, and bejewelled Bible, is a model of noble simplicity.
“Well, grey is a penitential color, after all. More than what you’re wearing, heathen.”
“They told me it was the crown or the hair. I chose the hair.”
The face when you realize that someone has spilled ketchup and mustard everywhere.
Marie Elisabeth von Holstein-Gottorf, Princess-Abbess of Quedlinburg, knows what you did. And she is not amused.
“What cloister is ever complete without tropical plants?”
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.
I have just discovered that Once I Was a Clever Boy, a blog I used to enjoy but was sorry to see in hiatus, has returned. John Whitehead, the blog’s author, is a friend and a Brother of the Little Oratory here in Oxford. He hasn’t put up any new content recently. Nevertheless, there was a long time when for whatever technical reason – either on John’s end or mine, I was never sure – the blog was totally inaccessible. I’m very happy to see it’s back, and I look forward to more content from this quintessentially Oxonian blog.
I have just been made aware of a very exciting new social media apostlate, Consoling Thoughts From Fr. Faber. This Facebook page posts various pious meditations and, as the title would suggest, consoling passages from Fr. Faber. Those who share my devotion to the Apostle of London will no doubt find this page a serious and salutary addition to their diet of spiritual content. It has my full endorsement.
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.
The Abbey in the Oakwood, by Caspar David Friedrich.
The Church Times have just published an article in which I summarize some of my research on the connection of Anglo-Catholics and the occult world. I’d like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Sarah Apetrei, and co-supervisor, the Rev. Canon Robin Ward, for their support throughout all of this. I’d also like to thank Fr. James Lawson for the early help he provided as well as Dr. Michael Yelton and those various other figures who have discussed the matter with me over the past year, often in words of encouragement. Hopefully the full paper will be published someday. For now, read here.
‘Catholicity, Antiquity, and consent of the Fathers, is the proper evidence of the fidelity or Apostolicity of a professed Tradition’ J.H. Newman, Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church, 1837, p. 51