Prosaic Relics

Earlier this week, I went to the Birmingham Oratory for the Feast of Bl. John Henry Newman. Fr. Ignatius Harrison, the Provost, was kind enough to open up the Oratory house to me. I must offer him my tremendous thanks for his hospitable willingness to let me see such an incredible (and, it must be said, holy) place. Likewise, I thank Br. Ambrose Jackson of the Cardiff Oratory for taking time out of his busy schedule to give me what was an extraordinarily memorable tour. I went away from the experience with a rekindled devotion to Cardinal Newman.

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Your humble servant in Cardinal Newman’s own library. Photo taken by Br. Ambrose Jackson of the Cardiff Oratory. You can see Cardinal Newman’s violin case on the lower shelf of his standing desk at right.

There were many striking and beautiful sights at the Oratory – not the least of which was the Pontifical High Mass in the Usus Antiquior, celebrated by His Excellency, Bishop Robert Byrne. Even from so short an experience, I can tell that the Birmingham Oratory is one of the places where Catholicism is done well, where the Beauty of Holiness is made manifest for the edification of all the faithful. I walked away from that Mass feeling drawn upwards into something supernal, something far beyond my ken. This place that so palpably breathes the essence of Cardinal Newman is, as it were, an island of grace and recollection amidst a worldand, sadly, a Churchso often inimical to things of the spirit.

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The Birmingham Oratory with the relics of the Blessed Cardinal displayed for veneration by the faithful. This photo was taken by the author shortly before Mass.

Yet amidst all this splendor, I found myself peculiarly drawn to one very quiet, very easy-to-miss relic. It lies in the little chapel to St. Philip Neri to the left of the altar; in this placement, one can see the influence of the Chiesa Nuova on Newman and his sons, who modeled their house’s customs on Roman models. And so it is only appropriate to find relics of St. Philip there in that small and holy place, so evocative of the great father’s final resting place.

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The altar of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham Oratory. Photo taken by the author.

The collection of relics in the chapel are mostly second-class. These are not pieces of the body, but materials that touched St. Philip either in his life or after his death. One of these small items spoke to me in an especially strong way.

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The little grey pouch you see to the left is St. Philip’s spectacle case. There is nothing terribly remarkable about it. It may not even be entirely intact, for all I know. A visible layer of dust covers the case, and a hard-to-read, handwritten label is all that identifies its use and provenance. No one comes to the Birmingham Oratory to see what once held St. Philip’s glasses. But of all the glorious relics I saw that day some encrusted in gold, some taken from rare and holy men, some evoking the perilous lives of saints who lived in a more heroic ageit was this humble artifact that most fired my imagination.

A spectacle case is no great thing. It does not shift the balance of empires or change the course of history. But humility and nobility are close cousins all the same. Here we come upon St. Philip in his quotidian life. A saint so marvelously strange, so crammed with the supernatural, so flame-like in darting from one miracle to another, nevertheless bent his fingers to the perfectly ordinary task of opening this case and taking out his spectacles so that he might see just a little better. It is a true maxim that grace builds upon nature. We have been told of St. Philip’s many graces. Here we find him in his nature; frail and imperfect and in need of just a little aid, so like our own.

The supernatural never erases the natural, and God is never more glorified than in our weakness. The hands that took up this case and opened it and drew forth its contents, perhaps a little fumblingly from time to time, are the very same thaumaturgic hands that lifted a prince out of death and Hell so that he might make his final confession. We know the story of the miracle. How rarely do we ponder the everyday conditions of its operation! How rarely do we consider those hands in their ordinary life.

There is a tendency with St. Philipas with many saints, and with Our Lord Himselfto reduce his life to one or two features. Some would make him an avuncular chap, always happy to laugh and thoroughly pleasant to be around, a jokester, a picture of joy and friend to all. On the other hand, we can get lost in the extraordinarily colorful miracles that mark St. Philip’s life, losing him in a fog of pious pictures and pablum. Neither captures his essence. The true middle way is to maintain a healthy sense of the bizarrean approach that recognizes the extraordinary in-breaking of the supernatural precisely because it appreciates the ordinary material of St. Philip’s day-to-day existence. It was this view that Fr. Ignatius himself recommended, though perhaps with a greater emphasis on the “weird,” in his homily delivered last St. Philip’s day.

I was reminded of this double reality when I saw St. Philip’s spectacle case. Prosaic relics carry this two-fold life within them more vividly than those upon which our ancestors’ piety has elaborated in glass and gold. Even Cardinal Newman’s violin case is not so markedly dual in this way; after all, every instrument belongs to that human portion of the supernatural we call “art.” Music, paintings, and other aesthetic forms all lift the human soul out of itself and into another world. In some ways, they are cousins both to Our Lady and to the Sacraments, God’s masterpieces of the sensible creation. Yet a spectacle casehow utilitarian. How plain. How merely functional. There is no poetry in a spectacle case. One can imagine writing a poem about a violinthe sinuous form of the wood almost suggests it, and more so when it carries a connection with so great a man as Newmanbut a spectacle case? Drab as this one is, its beauty comes only from the story it tells, from the life it once served, from the little help it gave its owner in his acquisition of beatitude.

Too often we wish to be God’s violins. In our quest for holiness, we wish to be admired, to cast our voice abroad, to give and seek beauty. These are not necessarily unworthy goals. But they are not the most important thing. Too infrequently do we turn our mind to the spectacle case. All too rarely do we seek our holiness in the gentle, quiet, everyday task of being useful, unnoticed, and present to God precisely when He needs us.

St. Philip knew how to be both, when he needed to be. May we learn to be like him in this as in so many respects.

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The effigy of Holy Father Philip, Chapel of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham Oratory. Photo taken by author.

 

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Unfashionable Thoughts on the Proliferation of Bibles

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A depiction of Pentecost (and thus Our Lady of the Cenacle) in an illuminated A from a Lombard antiphonal, 1430’s. Attributed to Stefano da Verona and now in the possession of the Getty Museum. Not a Bible, though. (Source)

Erasmus, that mercurial fellow of the Renaissance who did so much damage with such good intentions, hoped that the humanist scholarship then revolutionizing Biblical studies would produce a popular spiritual awakening. He foresaw a time when, the Bible having been translated into vernacular languages, “the farmer would sing parts of the scripture at the plow, the weaver hum them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveller lighten the weariness of his journey with like stories.” What he got was the Reformation.

Those of us Catholics who have the benefit of historical hindsight can perhaps treat Erasmus with a degree of charity. He did not foresee the storm that he was helping to prepare. At best, his image of the Word-infused society is one that we can and ought to strive for. But things have gone rather differently in what used to be Christendom. The plurality of conflicting Biblical interpretations, stemming both from theological divisions and from theologically-motivated translations from the standard scriptural texts of pre-modernity, has eroded the communion of the full body of Christians. Though by no means the only factor in secularization, this loss of even the pretense of unity significantly impaired the Church’s evangelical witness.

But of course, certain divisions along theological lines always existed in pre-modernity as well. Heretics, mystics, and scholars often disagreed with the orthodox establishment over various exegetical points, and sometimes those divisions were backed by political force. So, what made the Reformation different? Perhaps it was the material condition that stands behind Erasmus’s vision – the advent of the printing press. After all, the mass dissemination of information that the printing press spread and entrenched the Reformation (and the Catholic Reformation) as early as Luther’s first moves in 1517.

But I wish to speak less of early modernity and more of our own era. And, standing firmly in our present moment, I must conclude that printing the Bible was a mistake. Or, to be precise, the mass production of Bibles was a mistake.

An Observation

Walk into any sizeable book store – a Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million, perhaps. Wander the shelves and you will no doubt eventually come upon the Bible section, sometimes rows and rows of it. I recently did, as I have done many times before. On this recent occasion, I came upon more Bibles than I could count. There were dozens of different translations into English, often sold by competing Bible companies.

Leaving aside that variety, I was struck by the sheer overwhelming diversity of the Bibles as physical objects. I found Bibles in boxes, Bibles in plastic, Bibles in hardcover and paperback. There was an art-journalling Bible that seemed to combine the recent coloring fad with the word of God (curiously, there seemed to be no human faces in any of the images, rather reminding one of another religion’s sacred art). There was a “Rainbow Bible,” not a camp copy of the scriptures but a text pre-highlighted in various hues to illustrate thematic points. There’s a C.S. Lewis Bible for those who like to take their Jesus in leonine form. There’s a Lego-illustrated Brick Bible, and, let the reader carefully note, it’s not the same thing as The Brick Bible for Kids. Erasmus would be pleased to see that there are occupational Bibles, such as Bibles oriented to students, doctors, nurses, firefighters, police, and soldiers. There’s even an American Patriot’s Bible.

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This is a real thing. (Source)

But perhaps the greatest division beyond the inevitable Catholic/Protestant scriptural distinction is gender. Many of the Bibles (and Bible accessories such as carrying cases) are very clearly oriented to men or women. For instance, who is the intended buyer for a Bible in pink pleather binding with floral design on the cover? And who is targeted by a camo Bible carrier with the words “Armor of God” on it? One could cite similar examples ad nauseam. Again, go to your local bookstore. While you may be more likely to find a Bible section in the South or Midwest, I’d wager you could locate one in almost any part of the country. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

Some of these phenomena are not limited to Protestant Bibles, though Catholic Bible companies clearly lack the inventiveness and marketing ingenuity displayed by purveyors of Protestant Bibles. They are guilty of another sin. Mostly, Catholic Bibles just look bad. Many of them are just dumpy paperback bricks that no one wants to read, let alone have around the house. When your Bible fails even on a coffee table, you know you’re doing something wrong.

The Problem

These trappings are all deeply insidious for several reasons.

First, they enlist the Word of God in the maintenance of fallible worldly systems such as the nation, the state, the military-industrial complex, and various forms of social authority, thus stripping the Word of its critical power.

Second, they subtly encourage an unhealthy personalization of spiritual life. We are not Christians alone with God, but part of one Body of Christ. Ultimately, we can’t really own the Bible – not by ourselves. It can never be a private document, subsisting in a personalized meaning.

Third, in a perverse inversion of the last point, these trappings turn the Bible into a physical totem of a human subculture with its own recognized social-symbolic markers and status symbols. The Bible does not belong to the world of conspicuous consumption.

Fourth, the gendering of the Bible is a uniquely vicious practice, probably intended for what are innocently if cynically capitalist reasons. These Bibles sell, no doubt. But they also reinforce problematically rigid gender norms which speak to a wider cultural bifurcation of the Word of God into a Gospel for men and a Gospel for women. I have seen this phenomenon with my own eyes in both Evangelical and Catholic contexts. I have known people who have suffered because of it, some even falling away from the Faith entirely. Have we so easily forgotten the words of St. Paul that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus?” (Gal 3:28 KJV).

Fifth, these trappings commodify and trivialize the Word of God. The Bible is something to be sold. It becomes one item in the marketplace among many others. If you don’t like it in black, you can have it in any color under the sun. You can get a version that says things the way you like. The capitalist system affords the Bible no special treatment as a text; it is a book to be sold like any other book. And how it sells!

The Decay of the Scriptural Aura

There are those who will here object that I am taking too material a view of the Bible. After all, they will say, isn’t it better that the message of the Bible is dispersed far and wide, even if some of the editions are trivial or problematic? Why should it matter if some editions have silly themes or appear as commodities among other commodities? Isn’t it worth it?

I take exception with this attitude for a few reasons. My first is purely sectarian, in that, as a Catholic, I object to the unaided reading of scripture and the erection of private judgment as any kind of rule in its interpretation. The Church is the preeminent exegete, and without her, we are liable to fall prey to our own sinful reasonings. Some Protestants will find this objection unconvincing; Catholics, at least, should find it uncontroversial.

But the issue cuts deeper than that. We should treat the Bible as a sacramental. It is not just any book. The visible scriptures convey grace by summoning the heart to an awareness of what is invisible. And this precisely because we, as human beings, are sacramental. We are body and soul, matter and spirit. Our religious lives are healthier when both are brought together under a common obedience to Christ in a biune ministration of grace. The sacraments are fitted to our nature. So are sacramentals; so are the scriptures. Turning the Bible into a personalized commodity cheapens its quality as one of the paradigmatic sacramentals.

We ought not lose sight of the fact that this deadening process of commodification, however far-rooted it may be in history, has taken off with alarming speed in our own time precisely because of the cultural features of postmodernity. We live in a sign-saturated age. Both words and images fill our view at almost every waking moment, whether they be painted, printed, written, or digital. And signs, like coins, lose their value with over-production. Is it any surprise then that narrativity has become strained as well? Can we be shocked that those explanatory schemes which once held together our culture and our own personal sense of meaning have long since melted into air? Nothing has survived the thoroughly American logic of consumerist capitalism; can anything withstand the acid-bath of “innovation?” These questions have been with us since the 1970’s, when philosophers first began to take note of, as Lyotard called it, “the postmodern condition.” They have yet to be fully resolved.

One other feature of postmodernity with direct bearing on our subject was first examined by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin notes that, in premodern conditions, art objects were imbued with an “aura,” a sense of absolute singularity and unique presence that belonged to the artifact under the eye of the viewing subject. It was this quality that bound art to its original context in ritual. Indeed, some of you may notice that this idea is latent in Aquinas’s idea of claritas, without which nothing can be beautiful. But in an age where art can be reproduced again and again, an image can proliferate, as can the experience of seeing the image, without any of the unique presence that comes from contact with the original. We have witnessed the “decay of the aura.” And since, in Benjamin’s words, “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition,” then the “tremendous shattering of tradition” in postmodernity has thoroughly dispensed with the aura.

Bibles used to have an aura. Before the advent of the printing press, Bibles were expensive, rare, hand-crafted codices, often illuminated with historiated capitals and copious illustrations that drew upon pigments as rare as lapis lazuli and gold itself. So were other prayer-books – and the Bible was indeed meant for prayer. For the monks who labored over their manuscripts in their scriptoria, the Bible was not just a status symbol for the noble or prelate who had ordered it. The Bible was a liturgical book; the monk knew the scriptures precisely because of his immersion in the liturgy of the Church, which at Mass and the eight offices of the Opus Dei presented the Bible to him as the very marrow of prayer. The Bible belongs to the liturgy, for both reveal Christ.

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The Bible historiale, Clairefontaine and Paris, 1411. Now in the British Museum. (Source)

The Psalter, which is prayed in full by Benedictine monks each week, was yet another stand-alone portion of the scriptures that was often luxuriously illuminated as sacred art. The Books of Hours were also richly illuminated. These declensions of the Divine Office especially intended for laymen are yet another example of a scriptural prayer-book that was routinely infused with an “aura.” Those of us who have been lucky enough to see illuminated manuscripts of any sort in person can attest that they’ve still got it.

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The letter B from the Breslau Psalter, Psalm 1. (Source)

At a certain level, the question of the “aura” is a purely natural one. But the “aura” points to a supernatural reality, the underlying sacramental possibility of all creaturely matter. Because the Word has taken flesh in Christ, matter can take on divinity – it can become theophoric, bearing God, and theophanic, manifesting Him.

The aura inspires reverence. And it is meet and right that the very book where we find unfolded before us the Face and Name of God, the Bible, should make us turn towards heavenly things. The Jewish mystical tradition provides insights into the profound holiness of the Bible. We read, “We have learned that the Holy One, blessed be He, is called Torah…And there is no Torah but the Holy One,” (“Zohar” 2:60a, Beshalach). Likewise, St. Augustine would find much to agree with in the words of the Jewish mystic who writes,

It is also true that the upper root of the holy Torah is in the highest level of the worlds that are called the worlds of the Infinite Godhead [Ein Sof]…That is why the Sages say that the Torah preceded the world, that is it preceded all worlds. For they even say that it preceded the Throne of Glory. (“Nefesh Hachaim” 4:10).

The truth at the heart of this mystery is that of the Logos, the Word who is God, manifesting himself in creation, in natural law, in revelation, and then definitively in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, the holiness of the Bible partakes of Christ’s own divine holiness. Our starting point for any discussion of the scriptures as physical texts must be the sentiment that Louis Bouyer describes,

“No man can see God and live”: this means that the vision of God would bring death to a human being. The idea contained in this saying is a basic idea of the whole of Jewish revelation which we have lost all too completely, for with it we have lost the sense of the sacred, that is, ultimately, the sense of God. If anyone has not understood…that not only for men, but for all other creatures too, God is the Sovereign, the Utterly Other, the Pure, the Inaccessible, then he does not know what God really is. (The Meaning of the Monastic Life 41).

Once the aura has decayed, what are we left with? We are like those benighted souls described by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who “carved out of the ponderous old rock-hewn Tablets of the Law ornamental figures so tiny that people gladly found room for them on smart dressing tables, in drawing-rooms and ballrooms.” Was there ever a more apt description of what we have done to the Word of God, materially and spiritually? For when we commodify the Bible, we commodify its message. When we objectify the Bible, we objectify its message. When we trivialize the Bible, we trivialize its message. Is there anything more dangerous in a world grown cold to the Gospel? The same can be said of the liturgy. Banality in the ars celebrandi vitiates the aura embedded in the ritual. We have a responsibility to maintain higher standards.

A Return to the Family Bible

Let me be very clear. My objection here is to both the mass proliferation and the sheer diversity of Bibles on the market. These two phenomena, even more than the underlying condition of their quality as printed material, have destroyed the aura of the Word of God. But I should note in all fairness that many Christians, at least in the English-speaking countries, used to maintain a strong sense of the Bible’s auratic sacramentality. That time-honored institution of the Family Bible, often an enormous and ornamental tome passed down from generation to generation as an heirloom and a testament of enduring faith, once preserved a kind of aura. What undermined this institution and the kind of home liturgies that once sustained it? Was it the Gideons? Was it the travelling Bible salesmen satirized so acerbically by Flannery O’Connor in Good Country People? Or was it the broader cultural force of capitalist individualism exacerbating the collapse of narrativity and traditional community, rendering the search for salvation even more personal – and thus lonelier and more consumerist – then ever before?

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A typical “Family Bible” of the nineteenth century. (Source)

I recognize that I am complicit in this problem. I own several Bibles, not all of which were gifts, and not all of which are very good. But I believe that most of us Christians are bound up with the cultural conditions which have produced so many and such shoddy copies of the scriptures. We can’t start to imagine a better way until we re-assess our relationship with the sacred. While it’s impossible to go back to the scriptoria of Cluny or Clairvaux, we can begin to appropriate their view of the Bible as a liturgically-grounded manifestation of the Divine Word. Perhaps we can start to produce more beautiful Bibles – even auratic ones. More depends on it than we might think. After all, the illumination of the page was always an anticipation of and metaphor for the illumination of the soul.

A Relic of the 1965 Liturgy

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Album cover of the Missa Luba. (Source)

That strange Mass produced by the Council in 1965, an interim liturgy somewhere between the Usus Antiquior and the Novus Ordo, was often accompanied by a distinctive style – at once traditional and fresh, what has been called by some “The Other Modern.” Think of the decoration of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C – especially its many side-chapels. Think of the delightful, dignified, but very vernacular liturgical music of Fr. Clarence Rivers (at least his early material). Think of the ornate but often geometric vestments that emerged from that time. Indeed, just think of Paul VI’s space-age papal tiara.

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The hybrid Mass of 1965. Not ideal, but considerably better than what followed. (Source)

Recently I discovered a reminder of this strange time in the Church’s history. I was watching a 1968 movie called If… with friends. It’s a disturbing (if artful) film about an uprising at a traditional British public school, and was clearly made in conversation with the student protests that erupted that fateful Spring, fifty years ago. I was surprised to find that one of the major musical motifs was liturgical. Looking it up, I discovered it was the “Sanctus” of the 1965 Congolese Missa Luba. The song is in many ways a synecdoche of the 1965 rite. It starts off with on French Gregorian foot, quickly introduces drums, and ends with an extremely Congolese bit of improvised singing. And, it must be said, it’s very beautiful.

The poignant song, coming from a country and Church in turmoil, strikes me as emblematic of the crushed hopes of that era. So much was anticipated of Congolese independence, so bitterly contested in the five years since. Already, the forces of reaction were coalescing around an upstart colonel who would soon assume control of the country as its first home-grown dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. And in the Church, those reformers who genuinely tried to bring about a more perfect sense of the divine in the modern world found their position betrayed by a coterie of unorthodox radicals who perverted the sense of the Council’s documents.

Yet we can still hear that bright, fleeting moment of hope in the voices of the Congolese joining their praises to those of the angels.

UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me, correctly, that I have erred in attributing the Missa Luba to 1965 proper. The Mass setting was actually first recorded in 1958. It was in 1965 that the first US release of the album came out. So I suppose that, insofar as we consider its Western reception, the Missa Luba does remain part of the 1965 liturgical landscape. And “The Other Modern” certainly existed in the 1950’s; the aesthetics of 1965 were the culmination of a few decades’ of development.

I suppose my final point, about the parallels in the Church and the Congo, wouldn’t work as well as I had hoped. But at the very least, the Congo in 1958 was indeed a place of tremendous hope for the future. That aspiration manifest in the music was soon crushed by the turmoil of five years of war following Belgium’s official withdrawal in 1960. And the Church? Well, in 1958, I’m not sure anyone really saw what was coming…

Another View of the Sacraments in the Eighteenth Century

A while back I produced a short post entitled “A View of the Sacraments in the Age of Enlightenment.” Here I give you another series of similar images, this time from the hand of Giuseppe Maria Crespi, also known as “Lo Spagnuolo.” These paintings from 1712, so reminiscent of Rembrandt, hang in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden. Originally commissioned by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, that towering figure of late Baroque culture, they passed posthumously up to Germany, where they made their way into collection of the Elector of Saxony.

Let me begin by saying that, as with the information in the above paragraph, all of the images can be found at Wikipedia.

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“Baptism.” Crespi’s sparing use of light demonstrates the central conjunction of the scene. Allowing our eyes to wander along the central line of illumination, we follow the arm of the priest pouring water on the head of the outstretched infant to the mother’s rosary-wrapped wrist just beyond. I am convinced that the use of light in all of these images is the key to their meaning. Crespi uses light to illustrate the work of sacramental grace, and darkness to emphasize the mortality, evanescence, and weariness of our ordinary world. “The people in darkness have seen a great light” – thus spake Isaiah.

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“Communion.” The priest’s face is shrouded in darkness, and rightly so. It is not he who offers the bread of life, but Christ in him. Interesting collar, too. Sure looks familiar. Cardinal Ottoboni was patron of the Congregation of the Oratory at Rome for some time, and it’s entirely possible that Crespi would have taken the Oratorians as his model here. Besides that, the setting of the scene is strikingly barren. Crespi’s choice to leave out the probable altar rail lends the scene an intimacy that captures the very heart of the worship here portrayed.

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“Confirmation.” Crespi’s lightest and most colorful piece in the series. The vivid red-orange of the boy’s robes call to mind the tongues of flame that appeared on Pentecost, as does the (relatively) diffuse light bathing the scene. The brightest part of the image is the Bishop’s arm, only just anointing the boy’s head.  The strong predominance of vertical and diagonal lines in this piece only reinforce the sense of descent. Like all the paintings, the scene here is crowded without being cramped. Crespi seems to have penetrated to the deeply ecclesial nature of the sacraments. The sacraments are what give the Christian community its underlying spiritual cohesion and form. To quote De Lubac, “The Eucharist makes the Church.”

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“Confession.” Quite in contrast to “Confirmation,” we come to Crespi’s darkest piece in the series. The overwhelming color is black. Confession is the sacrament that deals most straightforwardly with the reality of sin. The narrow contraction of the light – it comes only from one side, and very weakly. The formal likeness between confessor and penitent reminds us of the condition of sin common to all men. This painting is also the only one in the series where we don’t see a crowd. Only two figures are visible. In the end, we are always “alone with the Alone.”

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“Matrimony.” Perhaps the most human of Crespi’s scenes. But we find unusual notes, things I can’t quite interpret with satisfaction. For a painting of matrimony, we hardly see the couple. Indeed, the bride has almost been swallowed up by the shadows. Nigra sum sed formosa. Perhaps. The priest stands like a pillar of cloud before them, blessing their union. That seems straightforward enough. Yet why is the man on the left holding his hand to his mouth, as if to signal silence? Perhaps because the matter of this sacrament is always properly taken in secret…

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“Ordination.” This composition is a swirling mix of blacks, browns, subtle golds, and occasionally, whites. The point that stands out most is the break in this overall scheme – the youthful, rosy visage of the ordinand, coupled with the slightly ruddy shadows that fall across his hand. What a contrast with the other figures, all of whom are shrouded in darkness and invested with a manifest pallor. Here is an image of youth, a prospect of renewal against a backdrop of dignified decay.

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“Extreme Unction.” At last we come to the end, the place of the skull. It is only fitting that Crespi should choose to depict a collection of Franciscans for this sacrament. Religious life is always a preparation for death. Yet the bright patch of light improbably illuminating the shoulder of the attendant friar contrasts starkly with the shadowy body of the dying father and points to new hope.

Elsewhere: The Prior of Silverstream on Secular Aesthetics

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“Balfron Tower, London,” Erno Goldfinger, 1967. Sometimes, Brutalism has something of the quality of a stage set. It can work then. But most of the time, it is extremely depressing, and one rather wishes that most Brutalist structures were torn down. Imagine what a housing flat like the one picture here says about human life. What an insufferable, dehumanizing worldview is enshrined there! No wonder that our greatest dystopias are all cast in concrete. (Source)

One of the things I like about Vultus Christi is that it’s very un-polemical. So much of the Tradisphere gets bogged down in kvetching about the Pope, or internecine carping, or weird and generally unhelpful screeds about the modern world. One does get rather exhausted of reading that, and most of the time, VC avoids it. But when Dom Mark does raise his voice, his criticism is always tempered with a profound wisdom and grace. Such is the case with yesterday’s sermon at Silverstream, “Make His Praise Glorious.”

The sermon is clearly addressed to the abortion referendum looming in Ireland’s imminent future. But Dom Mark sees the bigger picture of what a “Yes” victory will mean for Irish culture. His argument is not a concatenation of the ordinary pro-life slogans about “a culture of life.” Instead, he makes a broader and, paradoxically, a more incisive point. What is at stake is the place of God in society. The referendum is not ultimately about human life, but human salvation.

There is much to like in the sermon. Of course, I’m very glad to see Dom Mark quoting from Fr. Dalgairns of the London Oratory, one of Newman and Fr. Faber’s early companions. Dalgairns is not much read today, though he was well respected in his own life for his spiritual writings and for his prolific pastoral work.

I was very taken with the aesthetic rhetoric Dom Mark employs. He illustrates the divergence between secular and sacred societies with an appeal to their built environment. Early on in the sermon, he explains the moral meaning of architecture.

New cities are always being constructed on the ruins of the old: these are skillfully planned in view of providing their citizens with every facility and technological advancement: schools, green spaces, clinics, libraries, museums, shopping districts, sports fields, industrial parks, and fitness centres. If, however, in these cities, there is no temple raised to the glory of God, no sanctuary, no altar, no tabernacle containing the irradiating Body of Christ, not only are such places not fit for man, created in the image and likeness of God, such places are dehumanising. In every place where the praise of God is silenced, where churches are closed, where the worship of God is forsaken, man becomes less than human.

It is anthropologically uncontroversial that the spaces we create have an effect on us. Our constructed surroundings in turn construct our souls. And when our ideas about the soul and its final end change, so will our buildings. If you seek an artistic exploration of this notion, I would recommend the two stunning documentary films Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Baraka (1992). Or have a look at Pugin’s Contrasts (1836).

Dom Mark writes of the Christian world:

The builders of cathedrals, churches, and monasteries in former ages of faith had in view only this: to make glorious the praise of God. They understood that by raising edifices for nought but divine worship, and by keeping Sundays and festivals holy unto God, they were, in effect, providing their children, and their children’s children with space to be truly human.

The Christian community makes space (and, indeed, time) for the praise of God. By contrast, the post-Christian culture not only thinks differently, but looks and feels differently as well.

The secular nation descends inexorably into a harsh and dismal unloveliness. Beauty withers in every society that marginalises God and the things of God. Look at the cities constructed by the Godless totalitarian regimes of the last century: monuments of oppression haunted by hopelessness.

The difference between the two can be summed up in that one word: unloveliness. It is a quality that inheres in society as a network of relations between the self and others, between the self and the built environment, and between the whole sum of the people and their built environment. The word succinctly describes an entire process:

1. Spiritual malaise leads to doubt whether the created world can bear eternal meaning.
2. This doubt, often expressed positively as utilitarianism, leads to an unloving and even anti-aesthetic attitude towards the built environment.
3. Subsequently, aesthetic defect characterizes the built environment.
4. The original malaise is aggravated or ossifies.
5. The cycle repeats ad nauseam.

The processional nature of “unloveliness” derives from the threefold connotation of the word it negates, “loveliness.” When we speak of something as “lovely,” we are usually speaking of a moral, spiritual, or aesthetic quality. It is an assessment that lies somewhere between the Good and the Beautiful. The Unlovely is that which expresses, inspires, or provokes something somewhere between the Evil and the Ugly.

As Dom Mark makes clear, we have the duty to choose the Lovely and reject the Unlovely. “The choice of the secular city and its values will lead to barrenness, unloveliness, and emptiness. The choice of the second will lead to the sound of jubilation in the city.” If, as Goethe famously said, architecture is “frozen music,” then we should aim to build towering hymns that lift the soul to God. But the construction of that physical space depends upon the cultural space we make for the sacredincluding human life as such.

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“Le Corbusier’s 1925 ‘Plan Voisin’ planned to raze parts of central Paris and replace them with high-rise towers and highways.” Looks like posterity dodged a bullet there. (Source)

Nostalgia Without Illusions

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The Wilmington Giant, Eric Ravilious (Source)

Recently I read an article about a genre of music that had previously been unknown to me: Hauntology. In a nutshell, Hauntology is a throwback to the eerie, folksy world of British childhood in the 1970’s. The author summarizes the genre’s affective impact as “strange, melancholy disquiet.” Apparently music is being made today (and has been for some time) that conjures all at once that decade’s public broadcasting for children, the acoustic sounds of the English folk tradition, psychedelia, pagan chants, and synthesizers. Most of this material has been released through a few different labels: Ghost Box, Clay Pipe, and Trunk Records. Each specializes in a different variation of the general theme. On the whole, though, they all produce music that’s unsettling and evocative of a very particular place and time in the last century. There is something autumnal, something anachronistic, something broken in it all. In short, it’s music that’s haunted.

Many of the albums have cover art inspired by Eric Ravilious or John Nash or Sir Stanley Spencer or even Rex Whistler, those painters who so marvelously captured the quiet unease of the British landscape and its denizens. And the multimedia satirical phenomenon that is Scarfolk fits right into the broader movement. Hauntology is more than just a style of music. It’s an aesthetic.

In this respect, Hauntology is to the 1970’s what Vaporwave is to the late 1980’s and 90’s, or, for that matter, what David Lynch’s entire corpus is to the 1950’s.

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Malls built in the early years of Bush I are the stuff of Vaporwave dreams. (Source)

Vaporwave derives its critical bite as well as its occasional airy ephemerality from a unifying sense of dread. Much the same could be said of Hauntology. Only instead of the zombie-like ascent of neoliberal late capitalism under the glittering haze of digital culture and advertising, Hauntology is still preoccupied with the anxieties of the analog age. Orwellian dystopia, the loss of the British countryside, and the destruction of innocence all hover under the surface. It’s drawing upon creepy public service announcements rather than Japanese soft drink commercials. Hauntology is to British Folk Horror as Vaporwave is to Cyberpunk.

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A scene from Blue Velvet (1986), one of David Lynch’s most distinctive films. It set the tone for much of what was to follow in its powerful evocation and ultimately ruthless subversion of mid-century norms (Source).

The common denominator is nostalgia, but a nostalgia free of illusions. Each of these aesthetic representations of a remembered decade – Lynch’s 1950’s, Hauntology’s 1970’s, and Vaporwave’s Digital Age – contains a degree of attachment to that particular time. Usually because the main creators involved in producing the aesthetic grew up then, and thus they draw upon the dreamlike haze which alternately gilds and clouds our world in youth. But it’s all shot through with the very real understanding that the past was not as wonderful as we would like to believe. Something nasty lurks just beyond our peripheral vision. We cannot help remember, but in that remembrance, terror awaits.

I’m an American, and only in my early twenties. 1970’s Britain wasn’t a world I ever knew. Nevertheless, I immediately connected with the emotional phenomenon behind Hauntology. Certain relics of that earlier time appeared every now and then in childhood, and even those that weren’t directly from the United Kingdom of the 1970’s often bring to mind that same feeling of remembered unease. Many of Don Bluth’s films animate precisely this strange, sensitive part of my memory. So do Stephen Gammell’s original illustrations of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. So does The October Country, Ray Bradbury’s wonderful short story collection (which itself significantly predates the main era of Hauntology). So does anything by Lynd Ward. So do parts of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. So does that horrible movie, The Plague Dogs. There are probably more examples I could summon up if I thought about it long enough. I am no stranger to “strange, melancholy disquiet.”

I’ve always liked that sensation, and I’ve always been drawn to other peoples’ nostalgia. As such, I’m super pleased to have discovered Hauntology.

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)

The Garter Martyr

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Van Dyck’s famous Triple Portrait of the King, now part of the Royal Collection at Windsor. (Source)

The thirtieth day of January calls to mind that noblest of monarchs, Charles I of the House of Stuart, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. His reign was a study in chiaroscuro; a bright first half erupting into the bleakest darkness, only to end with a moment of shattering light. I speak, of course, of that death which has earned him the admiration of pious Anglicans for generations. Described as a martyr almost immediately after his execution, Charles I was formally raised to the altars of the Church of England in 1662, and his Mass and Office persisted until the Victorian era. Latterly, he has been the object of devotion by the most sound Anglo-Catholics. His feast is kept every year at Her Majesty’s Banqueting House in Whitehall, where the king met his untimely and illicit end.

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A posthumous memorial painting of Charles from the 1660’s. (Source)

That’s all very well and good for Anglicans. But where does this leave Roman Catholics? It is perhaps one of the great sadnesses of our age that the Ordinariate Missal did not retain the recognition of Charles as a beatus, if not a saint. A few years ago, Fr. Hunwicke produced a very good argument as to why, canonically and liturgically, a soul who died in schism could be recognized as a saint (taking the precedent of various Eastern saints like Palamas and Gregory of Narek). He has argued for a favorable reading of Charles’s Catholicizing tendencies before.

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A portrait of Charles I in armor. The work of Van Dyck, I believe. (Source)

I would add my voice to Fr. Hunwicke’s. Charles was, on the whole, a boon to the Catholic Church. Charles’s marriage to a formidable Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria of France, saw the arrival at court of Roman Catholic priests, a first since the days of Mary Tudor. He allowed the ambassadors of foreign courts to hold their own chaplains, notably at St. James’s, Spanish Place. Charles even opened up diplomatic talks with the Pope for the first time in decades, receiving more than one papal legate during his personal reign. High-level talks about reunion between the two churches were carried on in secret. He wrote to the Pope, in a letter of 1623 preserved and collected for publication by Sir Charles Petrie (1935),

Be your holiness persuaded that I am, and ever shall be, of such moderation as to keep aloof, as far as possible, from every undertaking which may testify any hatred towards the Roman Catholic religion. Nay, rather I will seize all opportunities, by a gentle and generous mode of conduct, to remove all sinister suspicions entirely; so that, as we all confess one undivided Trinity and one Christ crucified, we may be banded together unanimously into one faith. (See Petrie, The Letters…of King Charles I, pg. 16).

Of course, Charles was inconstant in these measures of good will. He was harsher on Recusants when it came to fines, but significantly lowered priest-hunting efforts. I believe I will not err in saying that, among the many martyrs of the English Reformation, none came during the King’s personal reign in the 1630’s. I only count four overall, of which we can probably acquit Charles from the burden of guilt. The two Catholics executed in 1628 – St. Edmund Arrowsmith, a Jesuit, and Blessed Richard Herst, a layman – seem to have fallen victim to the prejudices of lower officials rather than to any especially anti-Catholic venom emanating from the Crown. And once trouble with the Scots and Parliament began, Charles attempted to hold the situation together by, among other things, clamping down on priests. But even those martyrs which followed in the wake of these efforts owe their deaths more to the actions of local and middling anti-Papist forces than to the intentions of a harried crown. Only two seem to have died in 1641, the last year the King had any discernible control over what was going on in London. Realistically, it would be more appropriate to blame parliament for those deaths. In his church appointments, Charles always preferred those clerics who showed a marked sympathy to the doctrine of Rome. William Laud is only one among several examples that could be cited.

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The Eve of the Battle of Edge Hill, 1642, Charles Landseer, 1845. (Source)

If this rather unpleasant parsing fails to convince us of Charles’s disposition towards the Church, then the works of his Catholic subjects might instead. The Catholic historian Lingard reports that, “Of five hundred officers in the royal army, who lost their lives during the civil war, one hundred and ninety four are known to have been catholics” (see Lingard, “Documents to ascertain Sentiments…” pg. 18). That’s a full 38.8%. The Civil War wrecked the old world of the Recusant nobility, most of whom proved themselves loyal to the King to the point of death. We might add that all the forces of Catholic Ireland rallied around the King’s cause. Every major faction of Irish Catholic society knew that they would suffer far more under the stridently Protestant regime of the Long Parliament than they ever had with Charles. Cromwell’s bloody Irish campaign was to prove their fears well-founded.

In the grand movements of history, it is easy to lose sight of the basic humanity and unique personality of those at play. Yet monarchy is always personal. So is the communion of saints. And when it comes to a “royal Saint,” as John Keble would have it, we ought to pay even closer attention to the personal characteristics of the man in question. Who was Charles Stuart?

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Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their Two Eldest Children, Anthony Van Dyck, 1631-32. (Source)

A man of profound faith; a man who took his duty seriously, and executed it with all the fastidious attention of convicted principle; and, for the most part, a devoted husband. Though not entirely clean of adultery, Charles had but one mistress, and that only at the very end, while a prisoner. Alas. On the whole, his marriage was extremely sound by the standards of the Stuart dynasty, let alone the norms that prevailed among the continental rulers of the 17th century. One must rather admire the gallantry of a husband who cropped the ears of a man who dared to call his wife a whore in print.

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A German memorial portrait of Charles after Wenceslaus Hollar (Source)

Charles also exhibited impeccable taste in art. His aesthetic sensibilities led him to amass one of the finest compilations of paintings in Europe. Today, they form the core of the Royal Collection. He employed great artists like Van Dyck and Rubens to beautify the court, architects like Inigo Jones to ennoble the capital, and poets like Sir William Davenant and Ben Jonson to write lavish masques. The Queen and even Charles himself participated in these masques. Henrietta Maria thereby became the first woman to act on the English stage, clearing the way for later pioneers like Aphra Behn and Nell Gwynn to make their mark during the Restoration. All of these developments irritated the Puritans, as did Charles’s reissue of the Jacobean Book of Sports, encouraging the people of England to enjoy various games and festivities on Sundays and feast days.

The 1630’s were something of a golden age for English culture. The vast Laudian effort to restore “the beauty of holiness” in Church liturgy and fabrics must be set in this context. Charles was the king who loved beauty in all things.

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An Episode in the Happier Days of Charles I, Frederick Goodall, 1853. (Source)

Yet it is not for his mostly admirable character, nor for his exquisite aesthetics, nor for the glory of his personal reign that we remember him today. It is for that stirring death he embraced with the true fortitude and charity of a martyr.

On the scaffold, he declared to his murderers,

[As for the people], truly I desire their Liberty and Freedom as much as any Body whomsoever. But I must tell you, That their Liberty and Freedom, consists in having of Government; those Laws, by which their Life and their Gods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government (Sir) that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a soveraign are clean different things, and therefore until they do that, I mean, that you do put the people in that liberty as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves.

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Portrait of Charles before his execution, Goddard Dunning, 1649. (Source)

Sirs, It was for this that now I Am come here. If I would have given way to an Arbitrary way, for to have all Laws changed according to the power of the Sword, I needed not to have come here; and therefore, I tell you, (and I pray God it be not laid to your charge) That I Am the Martyr of the People…I have delivered my Conscience. I pray God, that you do take those courses that are best for the good of the Kingdom and your own Salvations.

After which he announced, “I go from a corruptible, to an incorruptible Crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the World.” To Dr. Juxon, Bishop of London, he whispered the single word, “Remember.” He laid his head on the block, lifted his arms up in imitation of Christ, and the axe fell true. From that moment, the stunned crowd knew they had witnessed something auspicious. An account of the execution relates that

His blood was taken up by divers persons for different ends: by some as trophies of their villainy; by others as relics of a martyr; and in some hath had the same effect, by the blessing of God, which was often found in his sacred touch when living.

One could thus argue that a cult of the Royal Martyr existed from the very moment of his death.

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The Execution of Charles I of England, formerly attr. to John Weesop. (Source)

Even so, the Church has not enrolled him among those hallowed names in the martyrology. It is unlikely she ever will, for political reasons if nothing else. For my own part, I am convinced that Charles I is worthy of a Catholic’s admiration. Yet truly does the verse of the Psalmist come to me, that “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will” (Ps. 21:1 KJV). In the end, only He can know what silent prayers and longings came to Charles in the last instant of his life.

Perhaps the true fate of Charles Stuart will remain a mystery until the Day of Judgment. But there is no reason that we mightn’t pray for him in the time until that fell revelation. After all, Charles died for what was best in the Church of England: episcopacy, sacraments, Marian devotion, beauty. Indeed, the very things it had inherited from its Apostolic past, and that Charles and his Archbishops had tried so ardently to restore. If history had taken a better turn, perhaps he might even have succeeded in the long hoped-for reunion of Rome and Canterbury. 

If nothing else, let us be grateful to Charles for all the good he accomplished and inspired under the Providence of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

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Frontispiece of the Eikon Basilike (Source).

The Year’s Top Posts: 2017

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The Bibliophiles, by Luis Jimenez y Aranda. 1879. (Source)

Here are the Top 10 most viewed posts in 2017.

1. 100 Things I Would Rather Listen To at Mass than Hymns from the 70’s and 80’s, In No Particular Order

2. Worried About the Church? Here Are Some Cardinals Playing with Cats!

3. The Five Idols of Christmas

4. The Oratorian Option

5. Fr. James Martin and the Perils of Imaginative Religious Art

6. The Triumph of Color: Notes on the Anglo-Catholic Aesthetic

7. UVA’s Honor Referendum is Undemocratic

8. Benedict Shrugged

9. UVA’s Own Saint

10. When the Sacred is Strange: The Art of Giovanni Gasparro

I hope next year will be full of even more writing!

 

Elsewhere: Shawn Tribe on St. Mary’s, Aiken

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The nave of new St. Mary’s, Aiken. Photo by yours truly.

Over at Liturgical Arts Journal, Shawn Tribe has written a wonderful piece on St. Mary, Help of Christians, in Aiken, SC. He was kind enough to use some of my own photography of the parish. The new church is an excellent example of Neo-Baroque architecture in the American South. I am glad that Mr. Tribe has also devoted some attention to the gorgeous Neo-Classical stations by Leonard Porter. Do check it out!