The Charism of Eccentricity

A-Priestridden-Village-BM

The 18th century was a Golden Age of clerical satire – and clerical eccentricity – in England. (Source)

What a day of loons it has been. After discovering the narrative of that wandering bishop which I brought to my readers’ attention earlier this afternoon, I have since come across two wonderful articles about the venerable tradition of eccentricity in the Church of England. The first is over at the Church Times. The Rev. Fergus Butler-Gallie, a curate in Liverpool, has written a book entitled A Field Guide to the English Clergy (One World Press, 2018). In his article at the CT, Butler-Gallie provides a taste of what is assuredly a very fun book indeed. Take just one of the bizarre figures he profiles:

William Buckland, a Victorian Dean of Westminster, became obsessed with eating as many animals as possible, from porpoise and panther to mole fricassee and mice on toast, even managing to gobble up the mummified heart of King Louis XIV while being shown round the Archbishop of York’s stately home.

He was no fool, though. The first person ever to excavate an entire dinosaur skeleton (although he was more interested in other prehistoric remains, writing on a desk made out of dinosaur faeces), he once disproved a supposed miracle in France by being able to prove (by taste, of course) that a supposed saint’s blood was, in fact, bat urine.

Or consider this parson:

The Revd Thomas Patten was a real-life Dr Syn, helping to run a smuggling operation on the north-Kent coast. Patten would preach interminably boring sermons until a parishioner held up a lemon, a sign that someone had agreed to buy his drinks for the evening at the tavern opposite, at which point he managed to terminate the service with astonishing alacrity (a ruse, I’m sure, no clergy reading this would even consider replicating).

If the rest of the book is as fascinating at these anecdotes suggest, it will be a classic in no time – right up there with Loose Canon and The Mitred Earl. Apparently it’s been getting rave reviews. (I’ll add that if any of you are looking for a Christmas gift for your favorite Catholic blogger, it’s going for under £10 at Amazon).

Today I also came across an article about one of Butler-Gallie’s subjects, the Rev. R.S. Hawker, also known as the “Mermaid of Morwenstow.” Alas, as I am not a subscriber to The Spectator, I cannot read it. Those who can are encouraged to do so.

One of my favorite clerical eccentrics whom I doubt that Butler-Gallie covers is the Rev. William Alexander Ayton, vicar of Chacombe in Oxfordshire.  A Victorian Freemason of extraordinarily deep occult learning, he maintained a clandestine alchemical lab in his rectory basement and claimed to have made the Elixir of Life. However, this adventure ended in sadness. He only tried one quaff and, finding that it made his hair fall out, the sensible vicar sealed it away on a shelf. In his old age, he discovered that it had congealed and was quite unusable. He also translated the Latin life of Dr. John Dee. With an inveterate fear of Jesuits, his own bishop, and “the gnomes,” it’s no surprise that Yeats – his comrade in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – once called him “the most panic-stricken person” he had ever met.

Though of course there are few stories of clerical eccentricity as amusing as the infamous dinner related by Brian Fothergill in his life of Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry. Fothergill tells us that

On one occasion when a particularly rich living had fallen vacant he invited the fattest of his clergy and entertained them with a splendid dinner. As they rose heavily from the table he proposed that they should run a race and that the winner should have the living as his prize. Greed contending with consternation the fat clerics were sent panting and purple-faced on their way, but the Bishop had so planned it that the course took them across a stretch of boggy ground where they were all left floundering and gasping in the mud, quite incapable of continuing. None reached the winning-point. The living was bestowed elsewhere and the Bishop, though hardly his exhausted and humiliated guests, found the evening highly diverting. (The Mitred Earl, 27).

Ballyscullion

Hervey also built what must have been one of the greatest gems of British Palladian architecture, Ballyscullion House. Alas, it is no longer extant, but has been reduced to a respectable if far less elaborate mansion. (Source) For a 3D model, see here.

If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that Anglicanism as lived in history is not a dry religion.

Allow me to indulge in a bit of crude cultural observation. It occurs to me that the national church of the English would inevitably partake of that quintessential English quality – eccentricity. Americans don’t produce real eccentrics. We breed individualists and, less commonly, outright weirdos. But the great British loon is mostly unknown to us. Eccentricity requires a certain localism, even an urban one, that has been mostly lost in the sprawling homelands of the American empire. Suburbs don’t produce eccentrics.

And more to the point, why should strangeness be so unwelcome in the Church? Why should the Church be bland and conformist and comfortable? Why must we labor on through the nauseatingly boring bureaucratic lingo and platitudinous sound-bites that so often seem to make up the bulk of our ecclesisatical discourse? Where is the sizzling fire cast to earth? Where is the light and heat of the Holy Ghost? In reviewing the proceedings of the recent Youth Synod, I was dismayed to find so little that genuinely spoke of the sacred. It so often seems that our Bishops are more interested in crafting a Church of the self-righteous liberal bourgeoisie than they are in the Church that Jesus left to His Apostles.

Eccentricity may not be a strategy, but it’s at least has the potential to become a reminder that the supernatural reality is completely other. As that Doctor of the Church, David Lynch, once said, “I look at the world and I see absurdity all around me. People do strange things constantly, to the point that, for the most part, we manage not to see it.” Well, God does far stranger things far more often than we do. Eccentrics – especially the Fools for Christ – can speak to that.

Butler-Gallie gets at this well in his article when he writes,

Church of England with more rigour and vigour might have its appeal, but the evangelising potential of the strange increasingly appears to be a casualty of the drive to be more, not less, like the world around us. An embracing of our strangeness, failings, and folly might free us to eschew conversion via tales of our usefulness — be that in pastoral wizardry, wounded healing, or nifty management speak — and, instead, “impress people with Christ himself”, as suggested by Ignatius of Antioch (who, though not an Anglican, did share his fate with the 1930s Rector of Stiffkey, both being eaten by a lion).

…Perhaps less strangeness is a good thing. It is certainly an easier, safer thing from the bureaucratic and behavioural point of view. I’m more inclined, however, to agree with J. S. Mill — hardly a friend of the Church of England — who suggested that “the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained. That so few dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.” Or, to put it another way, a Church that represses its strangeness is one that is not more at ease with itself and the world, but less.

I can only applaud this point. Ross Douthat said much the same in my own communion when, in response to the Met Gala last Spring, he suggested we “Make Catholicism Weird Again.” Or what Fr. Ignatius Harrison CO was getting at when he gave that wonderful sermon on St. Philip Neri’s downright oddity. And though Flannery O’Connor may never have actually said it, I can’t help but agree that “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you odd.” Indeed, my readers will know that I have hammered on about this point ad nauseum. Butler-Gallie’s writing encourages me to keep at it until we in the Christian West more widely recognize the charism of eccentricity.

MitredMinuet

Prelates dancing to the Devil’s music. (Source)

Advertisements

A Theological Primer on Emblems

emblematasacravivo

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

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

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

LeMondeLImagedeDieu

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

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

Michael-Maïer-Atalanta-Fugiens-1618-Emblème-XXI1-e1435998180296

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

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

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

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