Patreon: A Walk to the Pier

A British pier, not to be confused with a British Peer (Source)

My short story “A Walk to the Pier” – a surreal tale of memory, guilt, and telephones – is now up on my Patreon. An excerpt:

With almost a week gone by, Seymour Groves was regretting his retirement. Everyone had said that moving to Etcham-on-Sea would be just the thing to do, a kind of neverending holiday. What they hadn’t mentioned is whether a neverending holiday was really desirable. After frequenting the music halls, the buffets, the toffee shops, and the boardwalk, Groves had decided in the negative. Part of it was boredom. The amusements of his youth looked more tired than ever. He couldn’t, in all dignity, ride the bumper cars again, nor frequent the clubs and bars that had so enticed him in the summers of his early adulthood. Everything was sagging, rust-lined, smelling of piss. The beach huts stood in a silent line, all quite beyond repair. His own small flat was hardly more than a bedsit with a couple faded posters that shouted “Etcham! Poseidon’s Paradise in the North!” Perhaps it had been so, once. But as he was alone, he would have to find something to do. Groves had never married – had, in fact, lost the one woman whom he ever loved, Mona Deane, on the rocky shore of Etcham. He had not come back since that night so many decades ago.

“A Walk to the Pier,” by Rick Yoder (your humble blogger)

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“Heaven in Epitome”

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Katherine (or Catherine) Philips. (Source)

One of the great poets of the seventeenth century was Katherine Philips, a Royalist, a major translator of Corneille, and a devotee of Platonic love. Her poetry often explores the deeper meaning of close friendship. She had a few such relationships, and led a society of fellow aristocrats dedicated to Friendship as such. She would often use allegorical names to refer to herself (“Orinda”), her husband (“Antenor”), and her best friend (“Lucasia”). I found these few poems to be particularly moving and insightful into the nature of true friendship.

A Friend

Love, nature’s plot, this great creation’s soul,
The being and the harmony of things,
Doth still preserve and propagate the whole,
From whence man’s happiness and safety springs:
The earliest, whitest, blessed’st times did draw
From her alone their universal law.

Friendship’s an abstract of this noble flame,
‘Tis love refined and purged from all its dross,
The next to angels’ love, if not the same,
As strong in passion is, though not so gross:
It antedates a glad eternity,
And is an heaven in epitome.

*        *        *        *        *

Essential honour must be in a friend,
Not such as every breath fans to and fro;
But born within, is its own judge and end,
And dares not sin though sure that none should know.
Where friendship’s spoke, honesty’s understood;
For none can be a friend that is not good.

*        *        *        *        *

Thick waters show no images of things;
Friends are each other’s mirrors, and should be
Clearer than crystal or the mountain springs,
And free from clouds, design, or flattery.
For vulgar souls no part of friendship share;
Poets and friends are born to what they are.

Friendship’s Mystery, To my Dearest Lucasia

1
Come, my Lucasia, since we see
That Miracles Mens faith do move,
By wonder and by prodigy
To the dull angry world let’s prove
There’s a Religion in our Love.
2
For though we were design’d t’ agree,
That Fate no liberty destroyes,
But our Election is as free
As Angels, who with greedy choice
Are yet determin’d to their joyes.
3
Our hearts are doubled by the loss,
Here Mixture is Addition grown ;
We both diffuse, and both ingross :
And we whose minds are so much one,
Never, yet ever are alone.
4
We court our own Captivity
Than Thrones more great and innocent :
’Twere banishment to be set free,
Since we wear fetters whose intent
Not Bondage is, but Ornament.
5
Divided joyes are tedious found,
And griefs united easier grow :
We are our selves but by rebound,
And all our Titles shuffled so,
Both Princes, and both Subjects too.
6
Our Hearts are mutual Victims laid,
While they (such power in Friendship lies)
Are Altars, Priests, and Off’rings made :
And each Heart which thus kindly dies,
Grows deathless by the Sacrifice.

To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship

I did not live until this time

    Crowned my felicity,
When I could say without a crime,
    I am not thine, but thee.
This carcass breathed, and walked, and slept,
    So that the world believed
There was a soul the motions kept;
    But they were all deceived.
For as a watch by art is wound
    To motion, such was mine:
But never had Orinda found
    A soul till she found thine;
Which now inspires, cures and supplies,
    And guides my darkened breast:
For thou art all that I can prize,
    My joy, my life, my rest.
No bridegroom’s nor crown-conqueror’s mirth
    To mine compared can be:
They have but pieces of the earth,
    I’ve all the world in thee.
Then let our flames still light and shine,
    And no false fear control,
As innocent as our design,
    Immortal as our soul.

Friendship

Let the dull brutish World that know not Love,
Continue heretics, and disapprove
That noble flame; but the refinèd know
‘Tis all the Heaven we have here below.
Nature subsists by Love, and they do tie
Things to their causes but by sympathy.
Love chains the different Elements in one
Great harmony, link’d to the Heav’nly Throne.
And as on earth, so the blest quire above
Of Saints and Angels are maintain’d by Love;
That is their business and felicity,
And will be so to all Eternity.
That is the ocean, our affections here
Are but streams borrow’d from the fountain there.
And ’tis the noblest argument to prove
A beauteous mind, that it knows how to Love.
Those kind impressions which Fate can’t control,
Are Heaven’s mintage on a worthy soul.
For Love is all the Arts’ epitome,
And is the sum of all Divinity.
He’s worse than beast that cannot love, and yet
It is not bought for money, pains or wit;
For no chance or design can spirits move,
But the eternal destiny of Love:
And when two souls are chang’d and mixèd so,
It is what they and none but they can do.
This, this is Friendship, that abstracted flame
Which grovelling mortals know not how to name.
All Love is sacred, and the marriage-tie
Hath much of honour and divinity.
But Lust, Design, or some unworthy ends
May mingle there, which are despis’d by Friends.
Passion hath violent extremes, and thus
All oppositions are contiguous.
So when the end is serv’d their Love will bate,
If Friendship make it not more fortunate:
Friendship, that Love’s elixir, that pure fire
Which burns the clearer ’cause it burns the higher.
For Love, like earthly fires (which will decay
If the material fuel be away)
Is with offensive smoke accompanied,
And by resistance only is supplied:
But Friendship, like the fiery element,
With its own heat and nourishment content,
Where neither hurt, nor smoke, nor noise is made,
Scorns the assistance of a forein aid.
Friendship (like Heraldry) is hereby known,
Richest when plainest, bravest when alone;
Calm as a virgin, and more innocent
Than sleeping doves are, and as much content
As Saints in visions; quiet as the night,
But clear and open as the summer’s light;
United more than spirits’ faculties,
Higher in thoughts than are the eagle’s eyes;
What shall I say? when we true friends are grown,
W’ are like—Alas, w’ are like ourselves alone.

 

“God is Gone Up With a Merry Noise”

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Ascendit Deus in iubilatione, alleluia (Source)

God is Gone Up With a Merry Noise

Rick Yoder

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.

Merry Christmas!

I wish you all a very Happy Christmas. Here is the introit of today’s Missa in die. The text is taken from the prophet Isaiah: “To us a child is born, and to us a son is given…” This is my favorite chant, and indeed, my favorite version of my favorite chant. It was the very first Gregorian chant I heard as a child, long before I was Catholic. I suppose that it was, in a sense, the seed of my affinity for all things Benedictine. Every time I return to it, I feel nourished once again. May you find it a blessing on this glorious Christmas Day. 

On the Birthday of Cardinal Baronius

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The Venerable Cardinal himself. This portrait is one of the few where his Cardinalatial arms can be glimpsed, on the cover of a book in the foreground. (Source).

Readers of this blog will learn with no surprise that, having finished Lady Amabel Kerr’s biography of the Venerable Cardinal Baronius, my admiration for this great Oratorian has increased tenfold. As I have concluded the volume, so lovingly edited and reprinted by Mediatrix Press, on the very birthday of the illustrious historian, I thought I might reproduce here two extended passages from Baronius’s correspondence that I found particularly edifying.

The first passage is taken from a letter that Baronius wrote to one Justin Calvin. I have thus far been unable to locate much further information about said Calvin, unrelated, I think, to the heresiarch Reformer. Baronius’s Annales and extended correspondence with Justin led to the latter’s eventual conversion. Calvin (or Justus Baronius Calvinus, as he was called once he added Baronius’s name to his own) went on to become a priest and author of, among other works, an Apologia that justified his conversion. God manifestly works in mysterious ways within the long lives of religious orders. He is inordinately fond of strange and unintended coincidences.

Baronius writes to the young convert:

I return many thanks to the great and most high God, whose tender mercies, as sings David, are over all His works, for having called you out of darkness into His marvellous light. No benefit, no grace can be greater than this, so see that you cherish it carefully and guard it jealously. Do not indulge in paeans of victory; but rather remember that exhortation of the Apostle to walk circumspectly, not as unwise but as wise, redeeming the time because the days are evil…When the devil has been overthrown, he is apt to rise up with renewed vigour, and assault his former conqueror more violently than ever. Our Lord tells us of the wicked spirit who, having gone out of a man, did not rest, but fetched seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and retook by fraud the soul whence he had been driven…Be sure that he will seek you who have escaped him and are now fighting in the ranks of the Church. He may not betray his designs, for he fears lest Saul-converted into Paul by his reconciliation to the Church-should by the first of divine love deal destruction on the lies by which he is wont to overcome men. You, a soldier of Jesus Christ, beware, and lose not hold on the shield of faith which you have taken up. Be master of yourself, overcome yourself, and take heed that you, who were once in the employ of the prince of darkness, be not ashamed of being enrolled under the banner of Christ your Captain…You have, however, no real cause for fear, but only for joy. Rejoice if you are found worthy to suffer anything for the Catholic faith and in defence of the truth. I showed your letter to our Supreme Pastor, who rejoiced to hear the bleating of his one-time lost sheep, who has been found worthy to hear the voice of the Shepherd. He is addressing to you an Apostolic letter, by which he embraces you as if with extended arms, and by his written words places you on his shoulders rejoicing. In him you will always find a true pastor and father. (Kerr 295-96).

There is much rich advice here for any convert. Baronius also displayed his perennial wisdom when he replied to a number of fellow Cardinals who censured the liberty with which he defended the independence of the Church against the claims of various princes and potentatesabove all, the King of Spain. His response is inspiring for anyone who hopes to engage in the life of the mind. We read:

It behoves me to imitate our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, of whom the Gospel says that He taught as one having authority and not as the scribes, which means that He preached with truth and liberty, whereas they, in their adulation of Herod, yielded to that king’s taste in everything. Far be it from me, I repeat, to write like the scribes, and not declare the truth freely as did Christ. After Him I turn to the holy fathers of the Church, whose example, in writing, it behoves me to follow. In their maintenance of the truth in the face of those who attacked it, they displayed unbending constancy of soul. They did not make use of cringing, diluted, soft expressions, but, on the contrary, employed a language both grand and strong, mingling with it a sharpness of censure which converted their sentences into so many flashes of lightning. If you look through the Annals you will find scarcely a year in which some such example is not cited.

By studying the fathers and relating their acts I have by habit adopted their manner of speaking, which should not, in my opinion, be despised, for such speech is bestowed as a gift of the Spirit rather than obtained by human learning. When dealing with heretic or schismatic innovators, or else with princes who corrupt ecclesiastical discipline by their violation of the laws of the Church, or endeavour by their tyranny to reduce her to servitude, I have acquired the habit of writing with the indiscretion which you censure. The words of the prophet, “Cry, cease not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their wicked doings,” keep resounding in my ears as if from heaven. When Eugenius IV was made Pope, St. Bernard exhorted him to nominate Cardinals who should act as John did towards Herod, Moses towards the Egyptians, Phineas towards the fornicators, Elias towards the idolaters, Eliseus towards misers, Peter towards liars, Paul towards blasphemers, and, finally, as our Lord Himself acted towards traffickers in the temple. In other words he urged the Pope to choose men armed with zeal against sinners, who should act everywhere and in every way in such a manner as to sweep away the workers of iniquity. Such is the model drawn for us by the Holy Ghost, and if we do not conform ourselves to it we shall be convicted of deformity. (Kerr 318-20).

These are just some of the words which the Venerable Cardinal let slip as so much nectar from his pen and tongue. He was truly one of the greatest scholars that the Church has ever produced, and he revolutionized the discipline of ecclesiastical history. Yet Baronius always saw the Annales as a secondary work to the simple task of salvation. His humility was legendary, and Kerr’s portrait of Baronius captures this peculiar virtue in all its many expressions.

Fénelon writes somewhere that we are all saved with our disposition. And Baronius’s scholarly predilections color his devotional life. Kerr tells us of one of his favorite prayers in a brief but vivid scene:

It may be said that he never wasted a moment of that rare though precious time when it was permitted him to turn his thoughts directly to God. While driving about in his coach he used to pull down the blinds and give himself over unrestrainedly to the things of the soul, bidding his companion recall him to himself if anything occurred which required his attention. When thus shut into darkness he usually repeated the Holy Name over and over again, or else dwelt lovingly on his favourite interjection, “Eternitas, eternitas,” words which were but the epitome of his ceaseless longing for death and the state beyond the grave. (Kerr 282).

Baronius teaches us to use time—that is, our place in historywell. May we follow in his glorious footsteps and one day enjoy with him the eternity he so ardently desired.

A Poem and a Meditation for Good Shepherd Sunday

AgnusDei

The Lamb of God, from a c. 7th century altar in Rome. Source.

First, the poem, “Here in the Psalm,” by Sally Fischer:

I am a sheep
and I like it
because the grass
I lie down in
feels good and the still
waters are restful and right
there if I’m thirsty
and though some valleys
are very chilly there is a long
rod that prods me so I
direct my hooves
the right way
though today
I’m trying hard
to sit at a table
because it’s expected
required really
and my enemies—
it turns out I have enemies—
are watching me eat and
spill my drink
but I don’t worry because
all my enemies do
is watch and I know
I’m safe if I will
just do my best
as I sit on this chair
that wobbles a bit
in the grass
on the side of a hill.

I first discovered the text thanks to Brian Miller, who keeps up one of the better Conservative and Anglo-Catholic blogs I know.

Next, a quick thought. Today’s Gospel, taken from St. John, reads:

Jesus said:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.

So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

When I heard this passage read tonight (at my last 9:00pm Chapel Mass, a venerable UVA tradition), I had a sudden realization. Our Lord is making a point about the Church Universal. Christ says that He is the Gate, though any sensible exegesis would have to account for the verse that follows immediately after the conclusion of today’s Gospel: “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11 KJV). That’s all very well, but who is the “gatekeeper,” mentioned briefly before disappearing immediately into the wings? We are told that he “opens” the gate, Christ, for the Shepherd, also Christ. Only this one figure remains unexplained as Our Lord answers the Pharisees. Who, then, is the gatekeeper?

The Fathers hold differing opinions on this matter. To quote the Catena Aurea:

Chrysostom: The porter perhaps is Moses, for to him the oracles of God were committed.

Theophylact: Or, the Holy Spirit is the porter, by whom the Scriptures are unlocked, and reveal the truth to us.

Augustine: Or, the porter is our Lord Himself; for there is much less difference between a door and a porter, than between a door and a shepherd. And He has called Himself both the door and the shepherd. Why then not the door and the porter? He opens Himself, i.e. reveals Himself. If you seek another person for porter, take the Holy Spirit, of whom our Lord below said, He will guide you into all truth. The door is Christ, the Truth; who opens the door, but He that will guide you into all Truth? Whomsoever you understand here, beware that you esteem not the porter greater than the door; for in our houses the porter ranks above the door, not the door above the porter.

All of these are possibilities. St. Augustine’s insight, combined with that of Theophylact, is particularly helpful, as it opens the text to a Trinitarian exegesis. It is, of course, dangerous to depart from the Fathers. Nevertheless, I must put forward yet another opinion. I considered that perhaps Our Lady of St. John the Baptist might be good candidates, but ultimately, I found both of these options lacking for a singular reason.

Who is the gatekeeper? Who but the one who holds the keys? Who but St. Peter? For do we not read Our Lord’s words in St. Matthew’s Gospel,

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mat. 16:18-19 KJV)

The Gatekeeper is the Roman Pontiff, successor of St. Peter, he who keeps the keys to the kingdom of Heaven.

St.PeterApostle

Prince of the Apostles and Vicar of Christ. Source.

Eulogy For My Grandmother

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Sunset on the day of the funeral – 12 April, 2017

This was the eulogy I delivered at the funeral of Arline Grace Bence (29 Oct. 1929 – 5 Apr. 2017), my beloved Grandmother. The Requiem Mass was celebrated by the Rev. Fr. Gregory Wilson of St. Mary, Help of Christians, Aiken, SC. I also sang the Salve Regina during the Offertory. I’d like to thank everyone who has been so kind to express their concern and commiseration during this difficult time. I decided to put this rather personal document on my blog for those family and friends who could not attend the funeral, as well as to honor my grandmother’s memory.

I confess, when I learned last Wednesday that my Grandma Arline had finally passed away, I did not immediately feel the sorrow or grief I was expecting. Instead, I felt a twofold relief. First, I was relieved that after years of battling dementia and various other painful disorders, my grandmother was finally at peace. And secondly, I was glad that, having been consoled and fortified by the last rites of the Church, she would soon plunge through the cleansing fires of Purgatory and arrive safely in, as our Psalm today so beautifully puts it, “the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13).

And when the sadness came, it was mingled with tremendous gratitude. For when I remember my grandmotherwhen I see her coffin hereI am reminded of a woman who was one of the greatest blessings in my life. Few people more profoundly molded my character and dispositions. I’m sure that so many of us here can say much the same.

Arline Grace Bence, born the day the stock market crashed, a proud New Yorker and Italian to the end, was known to all as a simple and generous soul. In my own life, she expressed these virtues in different ways. She gave unstintingly of her time. For many years, we would both look forward to Friday nights. After the school week had concluded, I would mount the short staircase to her apartment above our garage, and the two of us would share a meal together. This was a precious time for both of us – if only there were more such time now! But in the years we passed in each other’s company, my Grandmother also fed my desire for learning. We spent many a weekend or summer’s day going out to lunchusually pizzafollowed by an outing to Barnes and Noble. She would let me roam the stacks for what seemed like hours, never complaining as she sat and read a magazine or two.

But this pattern of happy memories fails to capture the most important gift she gave me – the gift of faith. My grandmother was the first person to take me to Mass. She was the first person to buy me a book of saints. She was the first person to teach me the blessed words of the Ave Maria. And when I began my conversion in the last years of high school, she was the first to accompany me to weekly services. Although we were no longer spending Friday nights together, we both started to look forward to Sunday mornings instead. And we found a new closeness in doing so.

These giftsher steadfast love, the time we shared, the faith that sustained us in different ways – these happy memories are what will bring me something of her presence in her absence.

For now, she is gone. Thoughperhaps not in all ways.

The faithful departed are not really gone. They are, instead, much closer to us than they ever were before, for they have loosed the petty chains of time and space. In God, they are near to us – nearer than we can imagine. All those who have died in Christ and gone before us are waiting to help us as we, too, seek Heaven. And I can say with confidence that Arline Bence, our dear grandmother, aunt, cousin, in-law, friend, and mother, will very soon be interceding for us. Let us intercede for her now.

Everyone here loved her so very much. Perhaps even in ways that you could never quite express. I believe that I speak for us all when I say that my grandmother loved us deeply, if imperfectly. In this, she always proved her essential humanity. But now, as she enters her eternal life, she can love us all more perfectly, at last.

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace.

Amen.

GrandmaWedding

My grandmother’s wedding. She was a beautiful woman in her youth.

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My grandmother and me, 1995. We both lived in Florida then.

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Cooking with Grandma, c. 1998. Georgia.

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Grandma with Eeyore, Disney World, 1997.

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Grandma with Pluto, Disney World, 1997.

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Grandma and me eating birthday cake. I don’t know if it’s my birthday or hers, but I’m sure the cake was satisfactory. c. 1998. Georgia.

GrandmaPool

My grandmother on a trip to Florida. c. 2000.

GrandmaMomFlorida

My mother and grandmother together in Florida, c. 2000.

GrandmaGraduation

Grandma and me at my high school graduation, May 2013. Peachtree Corners, Georgia.

 

 

Some Occasional Thoughts on the Holy Minimalists and the Light of Tabor

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Icon of the Transfiguration, by the hand of the great 15th century iconographer of Moscow, Theophanes the Greek.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them,”Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

These words from St. Matthew were the Gospel reading at Mass last night. Yesterday was the second weekend of Lent, and the Church directs our eyes, alongside those of the holy apostles, to the face of Our Lord in His Transfiguration. And in the Eastern Churches, today is St. Gregory Palamas Sunday. Palamas is most famous for his articulation of the Essence-Energies distinction as part of a broader polemic against the Byzantine Scholastic attacks on Hesychasm carried out by Barlaam of Seminara. One of Palamas’ key Scriptural examples of God’s energies is the “uncreated light” of Christ’s glory in the Transfiguration. St. Gregory is celebrated to this day by the Eastern Orthodox and by Eastern Catholics on their Lenten calendars; yet in the post-Scholastic West, he still holds no place on the calendar. I must wonder whether or not the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent were chosen at the revision of the Lectionary in part as an ecumenical gesture to the Orthodox, though my knowledge of 20th century liturgical innovations is shallow at best. Regardless, those who, to adapt a phrase of Pope St. John Paul II, “breathe with both lungs” of the Church can recognize the Providential coincidence of these two celebrations.

The Light of Tabor is, in a Palamite reading, the eternal Glory of God made manifest in, with, and through Christ’s created humanity. The Transfiguration is therefore an archetypal moment for every mysticnot just the Hesychasts whom St. Gregory was defending. In view of all this, while I listened to the priest reading the Gospel this evening, a song came to mind: “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” by Arvo Pärt. The lyrics are taken from a poem by Robert Burns. Here’s the chorus:

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

A few weeks ago, when I first listened to the song, it immediately struck me as a potent metaphor for the contemplative life. Is not the contemplative’s heart set in the “high lands” of the spirit, like St. John of the Cross’s Mount Carmel? And has the Divine not been associated with wild deer throughout history, from the panting hart of Psalm 42 to the vision of St. Hubert to the White Stag of Narnia? The Apostles, like the mystics, like the chanting voice in Pärt’s song, are “led…up a high mountain by themselves.” There, they find Christ’s true glory, the energy of His divinity totally interpenetrating all they can perceive of him. The created rises into the divine, and the uncreated bends towards the creaturely; the two meet in the transfigured Christ. The dual presence of the heavenly Elijah and the Sheol-bound Moses demonstrates the moment of radiant communion between God and His creation, manifested perfectly in Christ, the Word made flesh.

Pärt’s song describes the experience of the mystic, not because Burns’ words actually refer to contemplation, but because of the way he takes up the verse and stretches it against an agonizingly poignant organ composition. He sets secular words to sacred music. Thus he accomplishes in miniature the assumption of the creaturely by the divine that comes before our vision in the Transfiguration. Art at its finest is called to participate in this lesser Transfiguration, and Pärt is a consummate master of what Tolkien might call “sub-creation.”

But Pärt is not alone in this; one of his colleagues, John Tavener, arguably a finer and more mystically-oriented composer, also transfigured profane writings into sacred pieces of music. I can think of no better example of this than his brief and delightful motet, “The Lamb.” Tavener took the lyrics from William Blake’s poem of the same name. In full, it reads:

Little lamb, who made thee
 Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
 Little lamb, who made thee?
 Dost thou know who made thee?

 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is callèd by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are callèd by His name.
 Little lamb, God bless thee!
 Little lamb, God bless thee!

Here too, we might glimpse the transfigured Lamb of God between the lines of Blake’s verse. The lamb’s “clothing of delight/Softest clothing, woolly, bright” seems to echo the robe rendered “white as light” on Mt. Tabor. Blake speaks of “the vales” when Scripture instead would bring us up to the peaks. And the question that ends the first verse is fundamentally the same as that which must have run through the minds of the bewildered apostles; who is this man? The answer, of course, comes from the voice in the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And Tavener’s eerily beautiful choral setting imbues the lyrics with a dimension hitherto unimagined. Many of his works remind one of candlelight on ritual gold, or the smell of incense flying forth with the rhythm of thurible bells, or the echo that thins out asymptotically under the glittering mosaic of a high dome. “The Lamb” is all of this, presented compactly. It stands as one of his finest works, and one of his most spiritually rich.

I recently wrote about the Holy Minimalists in a piece on the music of The Young Pope. They’ve been on my mind. But I didn’t connect their artistic project to the Transfiguration until tonight. We Christians are to become “little Christs,” imitating Jesus in all things by adoption and deification. Sometimes, that takes the form of contemplation. The apostles model that path for us in their behavior on Mt. Tabor. But at other times, and in other ways, we are called to live the life of Christ more directly. The Transfiguration provides a mystical glimpse of what happensand indeed, what will happenwhen the uncreated Light of God assumes, permeates, and glorifies the creation. Of course, the energies of God are not found in the artifices of men; but artists can practice their own, creaturely form of transfiguration. The pieces of music I have discussed are shot through with an awareness of the divine presence, and the words that began as profane poetry become something altogether different, something sacred, something nearly liturgical.

At the beginning of Lent, T.S. Eliot tells us to “Redeem/The time.” On this, the Second Sunday of the penitential season, Christ reveals in Himself how we might do soa transfiguration that Arvo Pärt and John Tavener have achieved, in some small way, through their own creative work.

 

A Theological Primer on Emblems

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“I Live,” from the Emblemata Sacra (1618)

Of all the myriad forms of visual theology that draw upon the Western traditions of art history, perhaps no medium is quite as neglected as the emblem. The books that contained these small, symbolically rich images constituted a prolific genre in the early modern period. They had a fairly standard format. Usually, the emblems sat alongside a few moral or sacred verses in Latin, Greek, or a European language. Daniel Cramer’s Emblemata Sacra (1618), from which the image above was taken, is a good example of this polyglot tendency. On the verso, one can find a quatrain in Latin, German, French, and Italian, always connecting the symbolism of the emblem with a French and Italian verse of the Scriptures. On the recto, the emblem sits under the same verse, this time in Latin and German. The page concludes with an epigrammatic prayer in Latin.

It seems that emblem books were popular in early modern Europe. Mara R. Wade of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign writes, “In the preface to his Companion to Emblem Studies (2006) Peter Daly estimates that ca. 6,500 emblem books were published during the Renaissance, with an individual volume containing anywhere from 15 to 1,500 emblems.” Wikipedia lists no fewer than 54 representative titles, though there were certainly many more produced between 1500 and 1800 (as any cursory review of UIUC’s  Emblematica Online or the French Emblems at Glasgow archives can show). The fact that these books were often printed with multiple languages of text side by side suggests that they were documents with cross-cultural appeal. They were meant to speak not only to the elites who knew Latin, but also to the literate bourgeoisie. All of that makes their emergence as a genre at a time of religious strife even more remarkable.

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“Le Monde est L’Image de Dieu,” one of the more explicit expressions of esoteric philosophy, in Boissard’s Emblemes latins […] avec l’interpretation Francoise (1588). It anticipates Boehme’s De Signatura Rerum by nearly 40 years.

Of course, not all emblem books were targeted for mass appeal. Occult works often made rich use of emblems. The chief virtue of the emblem is its capacity of succinct complexity. It can communicate a lot by saying very little. It obscures by revealing; it hides by manifestation. As one source puts it, “Emblems are concise yet potent combinations of texts and images that invite, and require, decoding.” This makes the emblem the perfect vehicle for the esoteric proliferation of ideas. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” says the Lord. If He had come in the age of Gutenberg, perhaps He would have delivered His parables in emblem books. Of course, to say so is to implicitly claim Christ as a Protestant. Catholics did produce emblem books; indeed, one of the latest examples I have found is the 1780 French reprint of Dom Bonifaz Gallner’s earlier Regula Emblematica Sancti Benedicti. However, it would seem that the majority of important emblem books flowed from Protestant presses.

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Emblem XXI from the alchemical text Atalanta Fugiens (1617), by the Lutheran Rosicrucian Michael Maier

There is a good historical and aesthetic reason for this. The emblem functions by setting up a symbol or a system of symbols independent of any text. While text was sometimes used to elucidate the meaning of those symbolic networks, it was always secondary to the image itself. The emblem book is one of the last gasps of the primacy of image over text in European thought. Along with the Wunderzeichenbuchen, the emblem book is one of the main genres mobilized by Continental Protestants to rediscover a non-iconographic (and, to their mind, a non-idolatrous) use of image in moral and spiritual development. Instead of an image asserting its “auratic” power to the exclusion of text, the emblem book suggests a way that text and image can mutually illuminate each other. As Mara Wade writes, the emblem books engendered “a process of reciprocal reading of texts and images, whereby the back and forth between the words and the pictures creates meaning. The picture presents the reader with a recognizable scene or symbolic collage, and the text then reorients the reader’s understanding of that scene to present a new and unexpected message.” In this sense, the emblem book clearly partakes of a distinctly Humanist and Protestant heritage. Note again that emblem books were very often the chosen medium for the quasi-scientific magical teachings of the Rosicrucians and alchemists. Those strange laborers were also, in their own quixotic way, seeking to reclaim something of the sacramental worldview thrown away by the iconoclastic Reformers (see Henry 2015).

The triumph of discursive reason over image in the Enlightenment led to the decline of the emblem book as a genre (there are surely other reasons tied to shifting book markets, but my capacities to do research into textual history are limited at this time). After that, the record has been rather sparse. Hamann occasionally used emblems in his philosophical works. More recent theologians have largely overlooked the emblem book as a theological genre. The single counterexample I can readily think of is Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot, which can only count as an emblem book when we ignore its departures from the traditional form. Yet the renewal of esoteric Catholicism by reliably orthodox publishing houses like Angelico Press suggests that the emblem book may have a place in the theology of the future.

Its revival seems particularly apropos in an age when memes have become topics of serious political discourse, when visual self-representation has been amplified through various social media, and when new norms of communication emphasize brevity over detail. An epoch is defined, in large part, by the relation of its people to their media. The development of the printing press launched early modernity by helping to bring about new conceptions of subjectivity, as well as new questions about the relationship of text and image. Consequently, the emblem book arose to grapple with some of those questions. The next great civilizational step in communication arrived with the internet, accompanying nascent postmodernity. Perhaps we shall see a revival of the emblem book for theologians to navigate this “brave new world.”