“And the Light Shineth in Darkness; and the Darkness Comprehended It Not.”

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Cybele, the Magna Mater, on her triumphal car pulled by two lions. Has there ever been a more perfect likeness to the Whore of Babylon? (Source)

March 24th is the traditional Dies Sanguinis of the ancient Roman calendar, when the painted eunuch-priests of Cybele and the votaries of Attis in their Phrygian caps would join with the servants of warlike Bellona in the most vile public atrocities. On that day, hideous pipes stirred the wicked throng into a fever of unutterable terror, and as the revelers danced in an ever more demoniac fashion, they mutilated their flesh and let out copious torrents of blood upon the stones of forum and temple. Then they drank from their own spilled blood, descending even lower than the beasts in their frenzy and taking on instead the aspect of lustful aegypans. The summit of these evil ecstasies came when, before the altar of the Magna Mater, devotees castrated themselves. Only thus could they enter the service of that infernal priesthood.
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The Triumphal Entrance of Christ, mosaic, Palermo. (Source)

This was the culture that Christianity conquered. And it is with these satanic rites in mind that we look forward to a double feast of rather a different sort tomorrow. For tomorrow, on the 25th of March, we celebrate Palm Sunday and the Annunciation, falling providentially on the same day.

“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

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The Cestello Annunciation, Botticelli, 1489-90. My favorite of all Annunciations. (Source).

 

Thoughts on Converting the Young

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The official drink of the movement. (Source)

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

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

I

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

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

For instance, in Part 1, we read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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An alternative. (Source)

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

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

II

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

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

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

Fr. Koczera continues at length:

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More of this, please. (Source)

St. Alphonsus on Christ’s Suffering

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May St. Alphonsus pray for us always. (Source)

This Wednesday’s spiritual teacher is St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church and founder of the Redemptorists. He was known for his moral theology as well as his Mariological and devotional writings. Here is something Lenten by St. Alphonsus drawn, paradoxically, from The Incarnation, Birth, and Infancy of Jesus Christ (trans. 1927). The bibliographic information can be found on the page from which I took this text. 

The Desire that Jesus Had to Suffer for Us

Baptismo habeo baptizari; et quomodo coarctor, usquedum perficiatur?
“I have a baptism wherewith I am to be baptized; and how am I straitened until it be accomplished?”
—Luke, xii. 50.

I.
Jesus could have saved us without suffering; but He chose rather to embrace a life of sorrow and contempt, deprived of every earthly consolation, and a death of bitterness and desolation, only to make us understand the love which He bore us, and the desire which He had that we should love Him. He passed His whole life in sighing for the hour of His death, which He desired to offer to God, to obtain for us eternal salvation. And it was this desire which made Him exclaim: I have a baptism wherewith I am to be baptized; and how am I straitened until it be accomplished? He desired to be baptized in His Own Blood, to wash out, not, indeed, His Own, but our sins. O infinite Love, how miserable is he who does not know Thee, and does not love Thee!

II.
This same desire caused Him to say, on the night before His death, With desire I have desired to eat this pasch with you. By which words He shows that His only desire during His whole life had been to see the time arrive for His Passion and death, in order to prove to man the immense love which He bore him. So much, therefore, O my Jesus, didst Thou desire our love, that to obtain it Thou didst not refuse to die. How could I, then, deny anything to a God Who, for love of me, has given His Blood and His life?

III.
St. Bonaventure says that it is a wonder to see a God suffering for the love of men; but that it is a still greater wonder that men should behold a God suffering so much for them, shivering with cold as an infant in a manger, living as a poor boy in a shop, dying as a criminal on a Cross, and yet not burn with love to this most loving God; but even go so far as to despise this love, for the sake of the miserable pleasures of this earth. But how is it possible that God should be so enamoured with men, and that men, who are so grateful to one another, should be so ungrateful to God?

Alas! my Jesus, I find myself also among the number of these ungrateful ones. Tell me, how couldst Thou suffer so much for me, knowing the injuries that I should commit against Thee? But since Thou hast borne with me, and even desirest my salvation, give me, I pray Thee, a great sorrow for my sins, a sorrow equal to my ingratitude. I hate and detest, above all things, my Lord, the displeasure which I have caused Thee. If, during my past life, I have despised Thy grace, now I value it above all the kingdoms of the earth. I love Thee with my whole soul, O God, worthy of infinite love, and I desire only to live in order to love Thee. Increase the flames of Thy love, and give me more and more love. Keep alive in my remembrance the love that Thou hast borne me, so that my heart may always burn with love for Thee, as Thy heart burns with love for me. O burning heart of Mary, inflame my poor heart with holy love.

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Detail of Christ Carrying the Cross, El Greco, 1580. (Source)

Elsewhere: A ‘First Things’ Debut

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

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

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

Newman on the Sorrowful Mother

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Our Lady of Sorrows, Pray for Us. (Source)

Continuing my Lenten series of Wednesday spiritual masters, here are two meditations from Newman on Our Lady’s dolours. They are taken from his Meditations and Devotions. We should never forget the terrible suffering of Our Lady at the foot of the cross. Her unique woes rendered her the Co-Redemptrix of Mankind.

Mary is the “Regina Martyrum,” the Queen of Martyrs

Why is she so called?—she who never had any blow, or wound, or other injury to her consecrated person. How can she be exalted over those whose bodies suffered the most ruthless violences and the keenest torments for our Lord’s sake? She is, indeed, Queen of all Saints, of those who “walk with Christ in white, for they are worthy;” but how of those “who were slain for the Word of God, and for the testimony which they held?”

To answer this question, it must be recollected that the pains of the soul may be as fierce as those of the body. Bad men who are now in hell, and the elect of God who are in purgatory, are suffering only in their souls, for their bodies are still in the dust; yet how severe is that suffering! And perhaps most people who have lived long can bear witness in their own persons to a sharpness of distress which was like a sword cutting them, to a weight and force of sorrow which seemed to throw them down, though bodily pain there was none.

What an overwhelming horror it must have been for the Blessed Mary to witness the Passion and the Crucifixion of her Son! Her anguish was, as Holy Simeon had announced to her, at the time of that Son’s Presentation in the Temple, a sword piercing her soul. If our Lord Himself could not bear the prospect of what was before Him, and was covered in the thought of it with a bloody sweat, His soul thus acting upon His body, does not this show how great mental pain can be? and would it have been wonderful though Mary’s head and heart had given way as she stood under His Cross?

Thus is she most truly the Queen of Martyrs.

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Virgen de los Dolores, Private Collection, Puebla, Mexico. (Source)

***

Mary is the “Vas Honorabile,” the Vessel of Honor

St. Paul calls elect souls vessels of honour: of honour, because they are elect or chosen; and vessels, because, through the love of God, they are filled with God’s heavenly and holy grace. How much more then is Mary a vessel of honour by reason of her having within her, not only the grace of God, but the very Son of God, formed as regards His flesh and blood out of her!

But this title “honorabile,” as applied to Mary, admits of a further and special meaning. She was a martyr without the rude dishonour which accompanied the sufferings of martyrs. The martyrs were seized, haled about, thrust into prison with the vilest criminals, and assailed with the most blasphemous words and foulest speeches which Satan could inspire. Nay, such was the unutterable trial also of the holy women, young ladies, the spouses of Christ, whom the heathen seized, tortured, and put to death. Above all, our Lord Himself, whose sanctity was greater than any created excellence or vessel of grace—even He, as we know well, was buffeted, stripped, scourged, mocked, dragged about, and then stretched, nailed, lifted up on a high cross, to the gaze of a brutal multitude.

But He, who bore the sinner’s shame for sinners, spared His Mother, who was sinless, this supreme indignity. Not in the body, but in the soul, she suffered. True, in His Agony she was agonised; in His Passion she suffered a fellow-passion; she was crucified with Him; the spear that pierced His breast pierced through her spirit. Yet there were no visible signs of this intimate martyrdom; she stood up, still, collected, motionless, solitary, under the Cross of her Son, surrounded by Angels, and shrouded in her virginal sanctity from the notice of all who were taking part in His Crucifixion.

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Mater Dolorosa, Klauber. (Source)

Elsewhere: An Anglo-Catholic Designer You Should Know

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A reredos by John Coates-Carter. (Source)

Over at Liturgical Arts Journal, you will find a very good, brief introduction to an ecclesiastical architect of the Arts and Crafts Movement, John Coates-Carter. He is most famous for his design of the (extraordinary) abbey on Caldey Island. Most of his work can be found in Wales. Perhaps because of his regional interest, I had never heard of him before. Yet his altarpieces are about as Anglo-Catholic as you can get. They have all of the features I noted in my article on AC aesthetics; they’re earthy, colorful, idealized, with a hint of the illustrative verging on the cartoonish. And most importantly, the are deeply human. Anglo-Catholicism restored the human face to British ecclesiastical art. We can see that tendency in the luminous angels and vibrant peasants that appear in Coates-Carter’s sacral art. Do go have a look.

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Caldey Abbey, designed by John Coates-Carter. (Source)

A Letter on the Face of God

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The Holy Face of Christ. (Source)

Dear Miriam,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and give thee peace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

Rick

“A Vacuum He May Not Abhor”

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R.S. Thomas in a typical pose. One does wonder if he ever smiled. (Source)

R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), the Welsh nationalist, Anglican minister, and consummate poet belief and doubt has recently become a favorite. Here is a poem of his that, I think, is worth pondering in Lent.

The Absence

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism

of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

Fénelon on the Return to God

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François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, Archbishop of Cambrai in the age of Louis XIV (Source)

Continuing my Lenten series of Wednesday spiritual masters, I present to you here a letter by Archbishop Fénelon to an officer, often identified as the Chevalier Colbert. The translation I am using comes from 1877, but I would also recommend to you the version by fellow Wahoo Chad Helms in the 2006 Paulist Press edition of Fénelon‘s Selected Writings. It struck me by its beauty and force of feeling, as well as its Lenten spirit. 

You have forgotten me, sir, but it is impossible for me to forget you. Something in my heart continually recalls you, and makes me want to hear of you, as I have more especially felt during the campaign and its perils. Your forgetfulness only makes me feel the more. The friendship you showed me once is of a kind never to be forgotten; and when I recall some of our conversations, my eyes are filled with tears. I trust that you remember how pleasant and hearty they were. Have you found anything since then more acceptable than God? Have the truths which then satisfied you failed? Is the pure light of the kingdom of God quenched? Has the world’s nothingness acquired some fresh value? Is that which was but a wretched dream not still the same? Is the God to Whom you poured out your soul, and Who filled you then with a peace beyond all earthly ken, no longer to be loved? Has the eternal beauty, ever so fresh to pure eyes, no longer charms for you? Is that source of heavenly joy, of unmarred happiness, which springs from the Father of Mercies and God of Consolation, dried up? No, for He has filled me with an urgent desire to recall you to Him. I cannot resist it: for long I have hesitated, and said to myself that I should only worry you. Even as I began this letter, I laid down a limit of discretion to myself; but after the first few words, my heart burst its bounds. Even should you not answer, or should think me absurd, I should not cease to speak sorrowfully to God of you, when unable to speak to you yourself any more. Once more, sir, forgive me if I exceed all due limits. I know it as well as you, but I feel irresistibly urged: God has not forgotten you, since He stirs up so eager a desire for your salvation in me.

What does He ask of you, save to be happy? Have you not realised that one is happy in loving Him? Have you not felt that there is no other real happiness, whatever excitement may be found in sensual pleasures, apart from Him? Since, then, you know where to find the Fountain of Life, and have of old drunk thereof, why would you seek foul, earthly cisterns? Bright, happy days, lighted up by the soft rays of loving mercy, when will ye return? When will it be given me to see this child of God reclaimed by His powerful Hand, filled with His favour, and the blessings of His holy Feast; causing joy in Heaven, despising earth, and acquiring an inexhaustible fund of humility and fervour from his experience of human frailty?

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The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1661-69. (Source)

I am not dictating what you should do. God will Himself make that plain to you according to your needs, so long as you hearken inwardly to Him, and despise boldly that which is despicable. Do whatever you will, only love God, and let His Love, revived in your heart, be your guide. I have often thanked Him for having shielded you amid the perils of this campaign, in which your soul was even more exposed to risk than your body. Many a time I have trembled for you: put an end to my fears, and fill my heart with gladness. None can possibly be greater than to find myself once more with you in the house of God, united in heart and soul, looking together to one glorious hope, and the Coming of our Great God, Who will fill us with the flood of His pure delights. Your ears are not yet closed to the sublime language of truth, your heart is made to feel its charms. “Taste and see” the pleasant bread daily spread for us at our Father’s table. Why have you forsaken it? With such support, who can fear that anything else will be lacking? Even if you do not feel strong enough to regain the happy position where you were, at least answer me, at least do not shun me. I know what it is to be weak; I am a thousand times weaker than you. It is very profitable to have realised what one is; but do not add to that weakness, which is inseparable from human nature, an estrangement from the means of strength. You shall regulate our intercourse; I will only speak to you of such things as you are willing to hear. I will keep God’s secret in my heart, and shall be always, with unchanging affection and regard, etc.

 

A Benedictine Prayer to St. Philip Neri in Lenten Time

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Ven. Dom Prosper Guéranger. (Source)

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

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

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

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

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