I would like to refer my readers to a phenomenal sermon delivered by Mother Brit Frazier of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, PA. Some of you may know Mother Brit from Twitter, others from Earth & Altar, a very good Anglican blog. You can find the video here, starting at 24:00 and continuing for about eleven minutes. I found her meditation on the theme of God as a home for all, as a welcome for the spiritually homeless, to be quite moving.
For those who are curious, the poem from Chesterton that she discusses, “The House of Christmas,” runs as follows:
There fared a mother driven forth Out of an inn to roam; In the place where she was homeless All men are at home. The crazy stable close at hand, With shaking timber and shifting sand, Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand Than the square stones of Rome.
For men are homesick in their homes, And strangers under the sun, And they lay their heads in a foreign land Whenever the day is done. Here we have battle and blazing eyes, And chance and honor and high surprise, But our homes are under miraculous skies Where the yule tale was begun.
A Child in a foul stable, Where the beasts feed and foam, Only where He was homeless Are you and I at home; We have hands that fashion and heads that know, But our hearts we lost – how long ago! In a place no chart nor ship can show Under the sky’s dome.
This world is wild as an old wives’ tale, And strange the plain things are, The earth is enough and the air is enough For our wonder and our war; But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings And our peace is put in impossible things Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening Home shall men come, To an older place than Eden And a taller town than Rome. To the end of the way of the wandering star, To the things that cannot be and that are, To the place where God was homeless And all men are at home.
Although I am not much of a Chesterton fan anymore, I, too, was taken with this poem. I am grateful for having been introduced to it, though the strongest parts of the sermon move well beyond Chesterton. “The heart of Jesus is a secure place. There’s no need to defend it, no need to fear for our safety.” These words of Mother Brit’s bear further meditation. How often do we act as though the heart of Jesus were not secure, or as if His grace could move without His sovereign will – even when it appears to fail?
I chose Rembrandt’s famous Return of the Prodigal Son to illustrate this post because it perfectly captures the feelings of welcome, abundance, and divine homecoming that Mother Brit evokes. For our own return home to God always takes the form of repentance and devotion, even if just for a Providential instant before death.
However, I also thought of the work of another artist. Allan Rohan Crite (1910-2007) was a Black painter and illustrator whose work focused primarily on scenes of African American urban life. He was also an Anglo-Catholic. His religious corpus, which bears a favorable comparison to that of other Anglican artists such as Martin Travers, Enid Chadwick, Ninian Comper, and William Butterfield, combines transcendent solemnity with a keen attention to the realities of everyday life.
His 1948 painting of Our Lady of the Neighborhood is a good representation of what Mother Brit is talking about.
A Black Madonna carries Jesus through a crowd of dark-skinned children in an urban scene. Although she is crowned with twelve stars, she is entirely at home with these people; they in turn are entirely at home with her and her divine son. The children in this image exhibit an easy intimacy with the Mother and Child, the sort of intimacy that comes from long familiarity. This sense of “being at home with each other,” so like the prelapsarian life, is the very sentiment that the Christian aspires to enjoy with God.
Yet how hard it is to attain! And not just because our sins and temptations, which are distraction enough. Our whole religious apparatus is set up to warn us of these traps on the journey. But even our piety and our virtues can get in the way, ossifying into idols that demand more and more of our tribute, sapping more and more of our time and energy. Good things, when used in a disordered way, become snares. The incense we burn before those false gods clouds our love of God. Perhaps that is why a somewhat fanciful image like this one becomes so attractive. It shows us another way – life as an easy, peaceful, almost effortless communion with God. It shows us a tiny, imaginative glimpse of the communion of saints. This communion, surely, is what Mother Brit has in mind when she says that “Our true home is an eternal and abiding safety.” For these children manifestly feel safe next to the God-Man and His all-pure Mother. They are, for lack of a better term, friends.
Mother Brit also touches upon this grand theme of friendship with Christ. She says:
Our home in Christ is always a place of companionship and love. He is our Savior and Redeemer, yes, but He is, indeed, our Friend. This friendship of Jesus is no ordinary fellowship. He lives alongside of us: a confidant, a guide. His hand is in our hands, His heart is opened and always opening to us, soothing our uncertainties and making our pathways into places of peace. His company is always unconditional companionship and love. In our fellowship with Him, we are given a beloved family.
Mother Brit Frazier, Sermon for the First Sunday in Christmastide, 2021
Friendship with Christ – a mystery. But our mystery, our blessed mystery, the magnificent mystery at the heart of Christian life. How strange it is that Being Itself, the Uncreated Light, the Omnipotent and Omniscient One, should call humans, who are essentially nothing, His friends? Yes, it is a tremendous mystery.
Crite conjures something of this mystery in his illustrations for Three Spirituals from Earth to Heaven (1948), which give a distinctly Anglo-Catholic spin to the texts of old Negro spirituals. For instance, in his drawings for “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” Crite depicts a Black man being taken up by Jesus into the heavenly choirs.
Perhaps it would be more apt to say that Jesus is carrying him. He’s not walking at all, but peacefully letting the Savior draw him into the realms of glory. A procession of coped figures streams by in the background, unnoticed by the poor and troubled man; yet this is no earthly liturgy, as the following illustrations make clear.
Christ Himself dons a cope of glory as well as a shining crown; He gently takes the troubled soul by the hand and shows him the scene he has hitherto missed. We sense his stunned joy. We can almost hear the otherworldly harmony of the singers. And look at the expression on Jesus’s face – not a stern look, but rather the concerned and kindly gaze of a friend who is attentive to the reaction of a dear companion whom He has just surprised.
And what is the greatest surprise of all? That even a poor and outcast and troubled soul has a place in this glorious choir. Crite finishes by depicting the poor man’s reception into glory, with Christ vesting him in a beautiful robe. God does not look at us like the World does, for He sees the heart. As Mother Brit says in her homily, “even those whom the World have rejected are given places of beauty and intimacy and peace and security at the throne of grace.” Allan Rohan Crite knew that Truth, and it shone through so much of his art.
Christmas is about all these things – Christ as our true home, Christ as our true friend. Especially in this holy time of year, let us pray for the grace always to trust that His friendship will lead us home to His heart.
Tonight at Mass, I was struck by how Our Lord, coming in poverty, obscurity, and humility, first drew to Himself people of poverty, obscurity, and humility. The shepherds stand for the poor and the oppressed; they stand for all those hidden souls where God works great miracles of sanctity in silence; and they stand for the humble, for supernatural humility is the distinguishing mark of the Christian life. They are thus our elder brothers among the elect, chosen by God to receive the mighty grace of His presence. As the Psalmist sings, “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant” (Psalm 25:15 KJV).
We must grow more and more like the shepherds, always seeking the Face of Christ once announced to us in by Revelation. That, too, is a grace – the joy of seeking and finding God.
And consider the company these lowly shepherds keep – an angel speaks to them, Our Lady beholds their wonder, and the God of Abraham admits them to His personal presence, honoring them more highly than the Prophets and the High Priests. Their names are lost to us. We will never know their image and likeness. They came to Him in a dark night, unnoticed by the world. But now they dwell with the saints in unapproachable light, adoring their Lord in a bright and everlasting day.
Let us pray to share in the joyful graces of the shepherds this Christmas.
This year, for Christmas, I wanted to present a brief, original translation of Pasquier Quesnel’s edifying Réflexions Morales. The following passages, which concern the second chapter of St. Luke, are taken from the 1693 edition, Volume III, pages 30-37. All Biblical citations are from the Douay-Rheims.
The Birth of the Incarnate Son of God – Luke 2:1-7
And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled.
This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria.
The greatest princes often give themselves to great movements and take up magnificent designs without knowing the reason why. Augustus imagined working for the glory of his name and the splendor of his reign – and his orders, by orders more powerful and more absolute than his own, served to accomplish the prophecies that were unknown to him, at the birth of a king he would never know, and the establishment of a monarch that would subjugate his own and all others. This is what happens in every age, and we think not of it.
3. And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city. 4. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David, 5. To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child.
There is nothing here that seems to happen by chance; and yet, all is ordained by Providence to assure and fix by a public testimony the knowledge of the time and the place of the birth of the Messiah and the origin of the house of David.
The Son of God, recorded from his birth as a real man, acknowledges, so to speak, his obedience, his humility, and the accomplishment of his promises. It is well visible from this that his grandeur, predicted by the angel, is not a human grandeur.
The poverty, fatigue, and subjugation in which Joseph and Mary find themselves are the preparation for the gift that they are going to receive from God.
Let us learn to submit ourselves to every creature for God, and principally to the royal power, in seeing Jesus Christ begin to obey from his birth and before his birth.
6. And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered.
Jesus Christ subjected himself to the laws of nature and to a prison of nine months. He hides the glory of His birth, in being born in an unknown place; teaches us to detach ourselves from our country and from all the present world, in being born in a voyage; recommends to us poverty, mortification, and humility, in being born in a borrowed place, deprived of all conveniences and help.
What instructions for us from this first moment, if we know how to hear them well! Let us listen to them in a spirit of adoration and annihilation.
7. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the Virgin; we are, in a certain sense, the next-born.
His humiliation in the infirmity of childhood is all the more worthy to be adored, as it seems the more unworthy of His grandeur and His wisdom. Rejected by men, he borrows the dwelling of beasts. May human pride blush as long as it is pleased to have a God become a child of a day and a moment, reduced to the captivity of swaddling-clothes, to the lowliness of a manger, and to the dwelling of beasts, to race again to the help of His creatures – and to be rejected! It is the glory of the Christian that his God has desired to do and to suffer all that for his salvation. It is his honor to adore Him, to recognize Him as his king, and to render him homage in all His states.
The Shepherds – Luke 2:8-20
8. And there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping the night watches over their flock.
9. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them; and they feared with a great fear.
Jesus Christ manifests Himself to the simple and the poor rather than to the learned and the rich. He reserves to the vigilant shepherds the knowledge of the mysteries and duties of religion; the negligent ones are left in their shadows.
Thou dost begin from this moment, Lord, to show who are those whom Thou hast chosen for Thy Kingdom, and who are the ones whom Thou hast cast off.
10. And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people
The birth of Jesus is the joy of this world, and the world did not know it. The world has its vain joys, its criminal joys, and by these it is unworthy to share in the joy of the birth of the Savior. It is the image of what happens every day; men have a heart closed to the things of God, in proportion to the extent to which they have one open to the pleasures and greed of this world.
11. For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David.
Abridgement of all the grandeurs of Jesus exposed to the faith of the shepherds, and which God formed in their hearts by the exterior sign of the light which surrounded them. As son of David and heir of the promises, he had a royal birth; as Savior, a sovereign goodness; as Christ, the fullness of the Spirit of God and of the sacerdotal and prophetic unction; as the Lord, a divine power.
What must we not hope of a Savior in whom one finds a sovereign power joined to an infinite goodness, which he annihilates for us?
12. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.
Is it there, Lord, the mark of Thy grandeurs, the ornaments of Thy royalty, the throne of Thy glory? O crèche, worthier than all that the world has of great riches and precious things, may I learn at your feet that it is by humility that Jesus comes to reign and that there is only “this path which leads to his kingdom!”
Pride is the character of the sons of Adam; humility, the mark of the Son of God and of the elect.
13. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying:
God, bringing honor by the celestial spirits to his Son, annihilated in infancy, teaches those of the earth, for whom He comes, what homage they owe Him in this state.
The angels remain happy to raise up by their praises the glory of a newborn infant, and to adore Him as their God. Will men be disdainful?
The crèche of the Savior is a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Greeks as much as the Cross; His infancy as well as His death is the pitfall of human pride. But it is the power of God for the salvation of those who have faith, and even the object of adoration for the angels.
14. Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.
The two principal motives of the Incarnation are the glory of God and the reconciliation of mankind.
God promises peace on earth to those whom He loves, but not repose.
The peace of God consists in His love, through whatever trouble and whatever storms this love may expose the Christian.
The peace that reigns on earth in these times only marks the birth of God in peace.
15. And it came to pass, after the angels departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath shewed to us.
When God inspires someone to search out Jesus Christ, to render Him some duty, to apply one’s self to one of his mysteries, we must not neglect it.
The angel does not order the shepherds to go to Bethlehem; but rather makes known and proposes the good to faithful souls so as to make them undertake it. It is thus to a good Christian and to a pious lady to say to them: Jesus Christ is in this poor tabernacle as in a manger, wrapped up in the appearances of bread, abandoned by all the world – He is in this poor one, almost naked, lodged in a miserable hut, lacking everything.
This is the image of the holy assemblies of zealous persons, who, profiting from exhortations and the light of their visible angels, mutually encourage each other to visit the Blessed Sacrament, poor households, and foundlings, in honor of Jesus the poor infant, swaddled and sleeping in a manger. Let us go to Bethlehem, the “house of the bread” of Heaven. May it please God that those who are outside this house, that is, outside the Church, might encourage each other to go look for Jesus Christ to taste there what our Savior causes us to know!
16. And they came with haste; and they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.
Will not sinners blush from the luxury and the delicacy of their beds, seeing the Son of God in a manger?
When a good work presents itself, far from losing time, we must follow the movement of grace without delay, for fear lest it pass, and for fear that another will take from us either the occasion or the beginnings of a holy work.
This reversal of order, the bride named before the bridegroom, creatures before the Creator, marks well the reversal made by the Incarnation. Mary is truly the Mother of God, and this dignity grants her the first rank in His house.
17. And seeing, they understood of the word that had been spoken to them concerning this child.
These shepherds believe the word of the angel without reasoning about it; they see the lowness and poverty of the manger, without being scandalized, and reflect on all, without being troubled. This is the advantage of a humble, simple, and submissive faith.
What false reasonings do the Philosophers make! How many apparent contradictions are embraced by the beaux esprits of the world!
18. And all that heard, wondered; and at those things that were told them by the shepherds.
The shepherds, first apostles of the infant Jesus, are faithful in announcing the news of His birth. God blesses the simplicity of their report in causing it to be believed everywhere. God does not love and does not bless that human prudence which believes it must hide the apparent lowliness of the mysteries of religion. It belongs to man to obey and to suppress nothing, and to God to cause belief by inspiring faith.
19. But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart.
Mary, consecrated and elevated to Jesus Christ, full of his mysteries, and entirely applied to the collection of virtue, spirit, and grace, condemns the forgetfulness and negligence in which Christians live with regards to what the Savior has done for them.
It is not easy to profit from the mysteries and the truths of the Gospel, and to preserve them in one’s memory; one must sustain them in the presence of Our Lord, and meditate upon them often, according to the example of the Blessed Virgin.
She is the teacher and the first model of Christian meditation upon the life of Jesus Christ. Let us profit in the school of our holy Mistress.
20. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
The shepherds imitate her in adoring and glorifying God. This is the first effect of faith, the first duty of religion, a tribute of recognition that we owe to the gifts of God.
The praise of these good people is as simple as their faith, and that is what God loves.
Thus should true Christians return to their own homes from the Church where they came to adore Jesus Christ and to listen to the preaching of His mysteries, His virtues, and His maxims.
Perhaps the fundamental flaw of our ecclesiology is that we think the Church was founded. By that I mean, that Christ came, set up the Church, sent the Holy Spirit, and it’s all been moving onward, outward, and upward ever since. One points to the words of Our Savior – “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” – and leaves the question at that. (Matt. 16:18). A somewhat more sophisticated version of this argument extends the Church’s life – her gestation, if you will – into the covenants of the Old Testament.
This kind of ecclesiology weds the Church to the vicissitudes of history, and the necessary fruit of this unhappy union is a Tradition that oscillates between mythopoetic antiquarianism and charismatic presentism. Tradition is either an ark to carry us across the sea of changes, or the constantly renewed speech-act of the Pope, or people, or Council, or some ill-defined combination of the three. And whether one reads this historical narrative in a traditionalist or a progressive key, one always ends up interpreting the story of the Church in the light of the past’s dying embers.
But that is not the model of the Church we find in Scripture. The Church which is the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, the Redeemed Heaven and Earth, all this is the self-same Church that sojourns in history (Rev. 21:1-2). But in the Apocalypse we observe her at her true birth beyond time. It is in the culminating moment of all creaturely existence, in her final and lasting Union with God in His essence eternal, that the Church takes her true being. It is the bright light of that ageless day which illuminates history, and not the ever-dimming torches of chronological time. Indeed, history furnishes no light of its own, only dim reflections of God’s glory that we misunderstand in uncountable ways. In the words of the Apostle, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Cor. 13:12).
In the same letter, he writes, “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28). Here we have an image of the eschaton – that redeemed dimension in which everything that is, is Christ, by the grace of participation in Him. The eschaton is thus non-different from both Christ and the Church. All souls participating in the eschaton likewise share in Christ’s singular mediation before the Father, albeit in ways proper to their scope. Humans are His Body, the Angels are His High Priestly garments, and the new heavens and the new earth are the temple. For the eschaton – the Wedding Feast of the Lamb – mediates God’s salvific action with creaturely, chronological reality (Rev. 19:9). It is like the upmost layer or outer shell of time, giving all creation its true shape. It is the blissful union by which God weds the cosmos.
A genuinely eschatological ecclesiology, an ecclesiology that takes apocalypse seriously, must demote any definition of Catholicity that relies too heavily upon the unstable facts of history. If the Church is, as the Apostle writes, “the pillar and ground of the truth,” then it must be rooted in a life that exists beyond the vicissitudes and fallibility of the creaturely world. (1 Tim. 3:15). However, this raises a question of knowledge with soteriological ramifications.
Too often we hear from Catholics (or Orthodox) in an apologetic mood that “We know we are in the True Church because we have Apostolic Succession.” No, you are in the Church because you are saved by the grace of Christ; your Judgment has already taken place beyond time, your eternal place in glory allotted, your soul blissfully united to the Lord – but you haven’t consciously arrived there yet. This is the mystery of Predestination, but not, as commonly misconceived, in a linear, chronologically anterior direction. Election does not happen before time, but above it – or rather, both before and after history. When St. Paul writes, “And whom he predestinated, them he also called. And whom he called, them he also justified. And whom he justified, them he also glorified,” he is fundamentally describing a single divine work in the eschaton. (Rom. 8:30). To be in the Church is to be a child of God. However, the grace of divine adoption is eschatological in both its root and in its orientation. Scripture says, “He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.” (Rev. 21:7). And elsewhere, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God.” (Rev. 21:3). This image, which comes from one of the final visions of St. John, depicts the Church’s eschatological life, and not her earthly existence. Thus, only the Saints in Heaven are the Church, properly speaking; the damned have no part in Christ’s Body. Ultimately, there is no third category.
The True Church is thus, like God Himself, hidden. She abides in and beneath the purple trappings of worldly glory, but takes no part in it. The tendrils of grace that reach down from the supernal world move invisibly and invincibly to the hearts that are hers; they are as so many crooked and narrow paths up to the temple, lit by the lamp of Revelation. As the Psalmist sings, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 118/119: 105).
This is not to say that apostolic succession is unimportant. It has its uses, insofar as it preserves and passes on the saving truth of the Scriptures and Creeds, the threefold order of ministry, and the seven sacraments by which we receive certain graces. In this sense, it is a gift of God’s condescension to us mortals. But apostolic succession is not constitutive of the Church’s essence. Only final participation in the eternal life of Christ can do that.
Which brings me to a question I have been wrestling with lately: what is Catholicity? When we confess in the Nicene Creed that the Church is “Catholic,” what does that really mean? The common answers one usually hears on this point are either “communion with the Pope” or “possesses apostolic succession.” The first of these is an irrelevant, Ultramontane fable. The second simply confounds the question of Catholicity with the question of Apostolicity.
My own attempt at an answer would divide the question thus: we may speak of what Catholicity looks like, and we may speak of what Catholicity is. Catholicity looks like those things I have already mentioned: teaching the faith of the Scriptures and Creeds, prayerfully distributing the seven sacraments, and preserving the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons in apostolic succession. In what it seems to be, Catholicity means wholeness. But Catholicity is participation in the eschatological Church which is already united to Christ, that is, the whole body of the saved, whosoever and wheresoever they might be. In this sense of its utmost reality, Catholicity means universality. Thus, Catholicity means different things when applied to the Church visible and the Church invisible, with the latter taking priority.
The temporary Church visible and the everlasting Church invisible are never completely commensurate. But one can nevertheless “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” more confidently in a church with these elements, and where one can be reasonably sure that the priest is offering a true oblation to the Father. (Phil. 2:12). One can never truly be sure that one is a member of the Universal Church simply by virtue of the necessary historical features I have outlined. A Christian can still be damned, even if he is a churchgoer; surely, no Catholic who is paying attention could say otherwise. As we move through time, who can know whether any of us will prove to be Saints in that last and most surprising Day? “Watch and pray.” (Matt. 26:41). As M. Quesnel said of the two thieves at the Crucifixion, “Un se convertit à la mort, espérez; un seul, craignez.”
I said earlier that this issue is a question of knowledge with implications for our salvation. But that’s not quite true. One’s adherence to the True Church is not a question of knowledge, even with all the best historical or empirical evidence we can gather. It is, rather, a question of faith. Too many Catholics are uncomfortable with real faith. The over-exalted epistemic claims of our church means that far too often we treat our doctrines and even our own salvation as matters of knowable fact, and end up forgetting that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). Let us pray to receive the grace of rediscovering epistemic humility, for with it, faith will follow.
O God, who, after having shown to us in Saint Augustine the very excess into which corrupt nature causes us to fall, hast also caused us to see in him the strength and the empire of Thy Grace over our hearts, grant us, we beseech thee, so perfect a knowledge of our extreme misery and of Thy infinite mercy, that, expecting everything from Thee, and nothing from ourselves, we might hope fully in Thee by defying ourselves completely.
O God, who in embracing Saint Augustine with Thy Love, and in elevating him above all men by the knowledge of Thy Truth, hast placed him in Thy Church as a fiery and shining lamp, so that he might illuminate and defend her by his doctrine, and console and edify her by his sanctity; grant, by the help of his charitable intercession, that we might imitate his virtues; and, at his example, rejoicing only in the truth, and having taste only for the fruits of charity, we might despise this mortal life by the hope and feeling of the all-divine life which Thou hast promised us; so that, loving Thee alone, we might also place all our happiness in Thee alone.
Thus we beseech thee by Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(From Jean Hamon, Entretiens d’une âme avec Dieu, New Edition (Avignons, 1740), pp. 405-06; original translation by The Amish Catholic)
Sometime in the last month, this blog received its 200,000th view. Thank you to all my wonderful readers for their consideration, their comments, their recommendations, and their sharing of my essays here. Much has changed over the last three years. For instance, it was a pleasure to host my first-ever co-publication as well as my first guest post recently. Yet I’d like to think that some things stay the same. Where has been change, I believe it has been (mostly) improvement. Everything’s coming up roses!
As a way of recapping, here are some of my stats.
These are all the countries where I’ve had views since the start of my blog. While the vast majority have been in the United States, I also have had an appreciable readership outside my native land. Here are the top ten countries where I’ve had the most views overall.
I’m proud to say that I’ve had a total of six views in the Vatican, too.
While I can’t verify this exactly, I believe that the single month with the greatest number of views was March of 2019, when I published “100 Edifying Lenten Penances.”
Thank you again to everyone for taking the time to read The Amish Catholic and making it what it is today. I couldn’t do it without you.
Popular Catholic memory of Port-Royal, especially outside the Francophone world, is of a knot of disgruntled nuns who, in a spirit of disobedience to their lawful superior, refused to condemn the heresies of Cornelius Jansen. There are many problems with this unfair caricature, an inheritance of the final Ultramontane and Jesuit victory over Jansenism in the wake of the French Revolution. The truth is much more complicated, as truth tends to be. We too often forget that these nuns and the community of hermits, servants, and local peasants around them led a life of penance and prayer that was widely admired in their own time (even by saints, as Ellen Weaver notes, building on Louis Cognet and Augustin Gazier). The liturgical and devotional aspects of Port-Royal’s community life have too often been neglected by scholars and, especially, popular Catholic writers who turn their eyes to the Jansenists. We have fixated too much on the controversies of the 1640s-60s, and too little on what daily life was like for those who worked out their salvation in “fear and trembling” at Port-Royal.
It is thus with great pleasure that I here co-publish an edifying and informative excerpt from the Voyages liturgiques of Jean-Baptiste Le Brun des Marettes, Sieur de Moléon, translated by the authors at Canticum Salomonis. They have already given an excellent overview of this text, in which they note that Marettes, educated at the Petites écoles de Port-Royal, retained something of a Jansenist liturgical sensibility. They sum up his work thus:
On the whole, the picture he paints is of a French people who are deeply engaged in their liturgical life and cathedral chapters that observe the whole office. His “taste” is for antiquity and ceremonial splendor, and this leads him to admire the pontifical liturgies of the middle ages. Admittedly, perhaps he does so because he believes them to be much more ancient than the extant source-books: expressions of the most ancient Gallic liturgies.
Aelredus Rievallensis, “The Voyages Liturgiques: A Roundup,” Canticum Salomonis
Their introduction to the translated chapter on Port-Royal, pages 234-43, follows with the text below. However, let me add a brief preface of my own.
The Voyages liturgiques offers several fascinating glimpses into the communal piety of Port-Royal des Champs. Marettes pays attention to the physical space of Port-Royal. He reports that the paintings in the church are by Philippe de Champaigne. The great French classicist had a daughter at the convent, Soeur Catherine de Saint-Suzanne, and seems to have provided the monastery with several portraits of both nuns and solitaires as well as several edifying works of art. The large altarpiece depicting the Last Supper is today in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, with a copy in the Louvre. Marettes devotes particular attention to the epitaphs in and around the church. The epitaphs for the solitaires Emmanuel le Cerf, an Oratorian, and Jean Hamon, a medical doctor and mystic, are especially moving.
Yet it is the liturgical and communal details he provides here that are most exciting for the historian of Jansenism and which, in fact, force us to take the nuns more seriously as daughters of St. Benedict and St. Bernard. Following the egalitarian reform of Mère Angélique, the Abbey did not require dowries of its postulants. Singing the office according to the use of Paris, they prayed the whole Psalter every week. The first chapter of the Constitutions of Port-Royal is dedicated to veneration of the Blessed Sacrament, a significant organizational choice. There were in fact both communal and individual devotions to the Blessed Sacrament at Port-Royal; for, “in addition to engaging in perpetual adoration…they also have the custom of prostrating themselves before the Sacrament before going up to receive holy communion.” Following an ancient usage, they only exposed the Blessed Sacrament during the Octave of Corpus Christi, and even then, only after the daily High Mass. Usually, the Sacrament was reserved in a hanging pyx, “attached to the end of a veiled wooden fixture shaped like a crosier.” The French Jansenists seem to have had a fixation with hanging pyxes; both M. Saint-Cyran and M. Singlin wrote about “suspension” of the Blessed Sacrament in this form.
The community would meet for chapter daily. The nuns engaged in an exacting and penitential adherence to the Rule, including silence, vegetarianism, abstinence from strong drink, and only a single meal per day in Lent. In their persons as in their ecclesiastical furniture, they followed the Cistercian spirit of holy simplicity; Marettes reports that “The nuns’ habits are coarse, and there is neither gold nor silver in their church vestments.” Yet they were not without the consolation of quiet reading in the garden during summertime.
Marettes reminds us that Port-Royal was not just a community of nuns, but also included male hermits and domestics. He writes, “After the Credo, the priest descends to the bottom of the altar steps and blesses the bread offered by one of the abbey’s domestics.” These servants and workers seem to have had a special participation in the liturgy through this rite, so reminiscent of the blessing of bread found even today in the Eastern Churches. The Necrology of Port-Royal includes these men as well in its roll-call of the Abbey’s luminaries, confirming the sometimes-overlooked egalitarianism of Port-Royaliste spirituality.
One of the more striking moments in the text comes when Marettes writes that “On Sundays and feasts of abstention from servile work there is a general communion; at every Mass said in this church at least one of the nuns receives communion.” The practice of lay communion at every Mass contradicts the usual picture of the Jansenists receiving infrequently or as discouraging lay communion. The nuns themselves, at least, seem to have received the Sacrament daily.
And I cannot help but see in one custom a potent metaphor for the troubled history of the monastery. Marettes writes, “On Holy Saturday, they extinguish the lights throughout the entire house, and during the Office they bring back the newly blessed fire.” The extraordinary and unjust persecution that the nuns endured under the authorities of the French Church and State – to the point of being deprived of communion during Easter, of being denied the last rites, of condemnation to a slow decline even after reconciliation with the Archbishop, and, at the very end, of having their bodies desecrated and even fed to the dogs – must have seemed like a very long Holy Saturday. Yet the blessed fire of the Holy Ghost does not abandon those who faithfully serve God in humble prayer and penitence. Where we find the Cross, Resurrection follows.
It is not for us to resurrect the nuns and solitaires of Port-Royal; historians can only do so much. But by taking the dead on their own terms, we can at least pay them the homage we owe any historical figure, and perhaps especially the defeated, the maligned, the powerless, and the forgotten. Only by doing so can we reckon with our implication in the longstanding myths that efface those voices. It is my hope that the publication of this important translation will help us in that process of revision.
In his monumental Institutions liturgiques, Dom Prosper Guéranger famously castigated the Neo-Gallican liturgies that proliferated in 17th and 18th century France for, inter alia, being products of Jansenist inspiration. Setting aside the question of whether these liturgies betray a heretical notion of predestination, it is true that many figures associated with the Jansenist movement did have a keen interest in the liturgy. Contrary to what one might expect given Dom Guéranger’s accusations, these “Jansenists” prized respect for ancient custom and repudiated needless novelty.
The intellectual centre of Jansenism was the Abbey of Port-Royal, a community of Cistercian nuns who were reformed in the early 17th century by the formidable Abbess Angélique Arnauld and became noted for their exemplary religious observance and cultivation of liturgical piety. This attracted a number of intellectuals who chose to settle as solitaires on the abbey grounds, leading a retired life of study and simple manual labour, including Angélique’s brother Antoine, one of the most prominent Jansenist theologians. Both the nuns and solitaries set up schools to teach neighbouring children.
One of those children was Jean-Baptiste Le Brun des Marettes, whom our readers will remember as the author of the Voyages liturgiques. His father had been sent to the galleys for publishing Jansenist works, and Jean-Baptiste himself once did a stint at the Bastille for his involvement in the controversy. His main interest, however, was not moral theology but liturgy. His Voyages evince his veneration for liturgical antiquity and opposition to modern developments in matters of ritual, furnishing, and vestments. Yet he found a way to reconcile such views with his enthusiasm for the Neo-Gallican reforms of the Mass and Office, ultimately sharing the hubristic certainty of most men of his age that their own putative enlightenment was able to improve upon “Gothic barbarism”. Our Aelredus has described and critiqued the seemingly contradictory tastes that Jean-Baptiste Le Brun shared with other Jansenist figures.
With these remarks in mind, let us see how the liturgy was celebrated in the Jansenist stronghold of Port-Royal, in a chapter of the Voyages that Jean-Baptiste Le Brun wrote before the abbey’s suppression in 1708 and the destruction of most of its buildings. (Although the Voyages was published in 1718, Le Brun employs the present tense in this chapter.)
We are obliged to the Amish Catholic for his help in translating this chapter.
Port-Royal-des-Champs is an abbey of nuns of the Order of Cîteaux lying between Versailles and the former monastery of Chevreuse.
The church is quite large, and its simplicity and cleanliness inspires respect and devotion.
The main altar is not attached to the wall, since the ample and well-kept sacristy is located behind it. Above the altar hangs the holy pyx, attached to the end of a veiled wooden fixture shaped like a crosier. It is set under a large crucifix above a well-regarded painting of the Last Supper by Philippe de Champaigne.
There is nothing on the altar but a crucifix. The four wooden candlesticks are set on the ground at its sides.
The woodwork of the sanctuary and parquet floor is very well maintained, as is that of the nuns’ choir. Indeed, the stalls are kept in such good condition that one would think they were carved not twenty years ago, when in fact they are over 150 years old.1
The church contains some paintings in the style of Champaigne, and a very well-kept holy water basin to the right of its entry.
Inside the cloister, there are several tombs of abbesses and other nuns. From these tombs one can garner
1. that the first abbesses of the Order of Cîteaux, following the spirit of St Bernard, did not have croziers. Even today, the Abbess of Port-Royal does not use one.
2. that in this monastery the nuns used to be consecrated by the bishop. Two of them are represented on the same tomb wearing a sort of maniple.2See figure XIV. The inscription around the tomb reads:
“Here lie two blood-sisters, consecrated nuns of this abbey, Adeline and Nicole aux Pieds d’Estampes. May their souls rest in everlasting peace. Amen. Adeline died in the year of our Lord 1288.”3
There is an ancient necrology or obituary in this abbey that includes the ritual for the consecration or blessing of a nun. It describes how on these occasions the bishop celebrated Mass and gave communion to the nun he blessed. To this effect he consecrated a large host which he broke into eight particles, giving one as communion to the nun. He then placed the seven other particles of his host in her right hand, covered by a Dominical or small white cloth. During the eight days after her consecration or blessing, she gave herself these particles as communion. Priests also used to give themselves communion during the forty days after their ordination or consecration.4
Under the lamp by the baluster lies a tomb dated 1327, if I remember correctly, which is worthy of description, especially given that its most interesting aspect is misreported in the Gallia Christiana of the brothers de Sainte-Marthe.
It used to be the custom for devout noble ladies to take up the nun’s habit during their last illness, or at least to be clothed in it after their death. See, for example, the tomb of Queen Blanche, mother of King St Louis, at Maubuisson Abbey near Pontoise. Here in Port-Royal we find the tomb of one Dame Marguerite de Levi—wife of Matthew V de Marly of the illustrious House of Montmorency, Grand-Chamberlain of France—buried in a nun’s habit, with this inscription:
“Here rested, whose name thou shalt have there hereafter. Marguerite was the wife of Matthew de Marly, and daughter of the noble Guy de Levi. She bore six boys. After her husband died, she went to the nuns. Amongst the claustral sisters she chose to make her home. In her long rest, may she be buried in nun’s clothing. May eternal light shine upon her in peace everlasting. Year 1327.”5
By the door of the church, in the vestibule, is the tomb of a priest vested in his vestments. His chasuble is rounded in all corners, not cut or clipped, gathered up over his arms, and hanging down below and behind him in points. His maniple is not wider below than it is on top, and he does not wear his stole crossed over his breast, but straight down like bishops, Carthusians, and the ancient monks of Cluny, who have rejected innovation on this point. His alb has apparels on the bottom matching the vestments: this is what the manuscripts call the alba parata. They are still used in cathedral churches and ancient abbeys.
Next to the church door and the clock tower lies the small cemetery of domestics, where two epitaphs are worthy of note.
“To God the Best and Greatest.
“Here lies Emmanuel le Cerf, who, after dedicating most of his life to the education of the people, deemed the evangelical life superior to evangelical preaching and, in order that he who had lived only for others should die to himself, embraced a penitential life in his old age as eagerly as he did seriously. He embraced the weight of old age, more conducive to suffering than aught else, and various diseases of the body as remedy for his soul and advantageous provision for the journey to eternity. Humbly he awaited death in this port of rest, living no longer as a priest but as a layman, and attained it nearly ninety years old. He died on 8 December 1674, and wished to be buried in this cemetery near the Cross. May he rest in peace.”6
And the other:
“Here rests Jean Hamon, doctor, who, having spent his youth in the study of letters, was eminently learned in the Greek and Latin tongues. Seeing that he flourished in the University of Paris by the renown of his eloquence, and that his fame grew daily for his skill of medicine, he feared the lure of flattery and fame and the haughtiness of life. Suddenly stirred by the prompting of the Holy Spirit, he quickly poured out the value of his inheritance into the bosom of the poor and, in the thirty-third year of his age, he dragged himself into this solitude, as he had long pondered doing. First he applied himself to the labour of the fields, then to serving the ministers of Christ, and soon returned to his original profession, healing the wounded members of the Redeemer in the person of the poor, among whom he honoured the handmaidens of Christ as the spouses of the Lord. He wore the coarsest garments, fasting nearly every day, slept on a board, spent day and night in nearly perpetual vigils, prayer, and meditation, nocturnal works everywhere breathing the love of God. For thirty-seven years he accumulated the toils of medicine, walking some twelve leagues every day, very often while fasting, to visit the sick in the villages, providing them what they might need, helping them by counsel, by hand, with medicines, with food whereof he deprived himself, living for twenty-two years on eating bran bread and water, which he ate secretly and alone, while standing up. As wisely as he had lived, considering every day his last, thus he departed this life in the Lord, amidst the prayers and tears of his brethren, in deep silence and sweet meditation of the Lord’s mercies, with his eyes, mind, and heart fixed on Jesus Christ, mediator between God and man, rejoicing that he obtained the tranquil death for which he had prayed, that he might gain eternal life, at the age of 69, on 22 February 1687.”7
Heeding the spirit of St Bernard, the nuns are subject to the Lord Archbishop of Paris, who is their superior. They also sing the office according to the use of Paris, except that they sing the ferial psalms every day in order to fulfill the Rule of St Benedict which they follow, and which binds them to saying the entire psalter every week. This they do with the approbation of the late M. de Harlay, Archbishop of Paris.
At the blessing and aspersion of holy water on Sundays, the abbess and her nuns come forward to receive it at the grill from the priest’s hand.
After the Credo, the priest descends to the bottom of the altar steps and blesses the bread offered by one of the abbey’s domestics. He then announces any feasts or fasting days during the coming week, and gives a short exhortation or explanation of the day’s Gospel.
At every High Mass of the year, the sacristan or thurifer goes to the nuns’ grill at the end of the Credo to receive, through a hatch in the screen, a box from the sister sacristan containing the exact number of hosts needed for the sisters who are to receive communion. He brings them to the altar and gives them the celebrant.
At High Masses for the Dead, the sacristan goes to the grill to receive the bread, a large host, and the wine in a cruet, and brings them to the altar. He gives the host to the priest on the paten, kissing it on the inside edge, and the cruet of wine to the deacon, who pours the wine into the chalice.
At the Agnus Dei, the nuns embrace and give each other the kiss of peace.
On Sundays and feasts of abstention from servile work there is a general communion; at every Mass said in this church at least one of the nuns receives communion.
Devotion for the most blessed Sacrament is so great in this monastery that in addition to engaging in perpetual adoration as part of the Institute of the Blessed Sacrament (it is for this reason that they have exchanged their black scapular for a white one charged with a scarlet cross over the breast, about two fingers in width and a half-foot tall), they also have the custom of prostrating themselves before the Sacrament before going up to receive holy communion.
Nevertheless, the Blessed Sacrament is only exposed during the Octave of Corpus Christi, and this every day after High Mass. For here Mass is never said at an altar where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. We will come back to this point.
The nuns of this monastery observe an exact and rigorous silence. Except in cases of illness, they never eat meat, and fish only rarely, about twelve or fifteen times a year. They solely drink water, and observe the great fast of Lent in its full rigour, as in the age of St Bernard, eating only at five in the evening after Vespers, which they usually say at 4 p.m., even though they wake up at night to sing Matins and perform manual labour during the day.
A spiritual conference is held after lunch, during which they continue to work, and during which it is not permitted to speak aloud.
During the summer, the nuns are sometimes allowed to go into the garden after dinner, but many refrain from doing so, and those that go do so separately, taking a book to read or some work to do.
Matins are said here at 2 a.m. together with Lauds, but in winter Lauds are said separately at 6 a.m, and then a Low Mass is celebrated between Lauds and Prime. During the rest of the year, Prime is said at 6 a.m., followed by a Conventual Low Mass. Chapter follows with a reading from the Martyrology, the Necrology, and the Rule, some chapter of which the Abbess explicates once or twice a week. Then they hold the proclamation of faults, and appropriate penances are imposed.
Terce is said at 8:30 a.m., followed by High Mass. Sext is at 11 a.m., and on ecclesiastical fast days at 11:45, after which they go to lunch, except in Lent when they do not dine, for in the Rule of St Benedict to lunch means not to fast. None is at 2 p.m. in winter and at 2:30 in summer.
The first bell for Vespers rings at 4 p.m., and the office begins some fifteen minutes later. It finishes at 5 or 5:15, for they sing very unhurriedly and distinctly. After Vespers in Lent, they sound the refectory bell, and the nuns go there to lunch and dine together. One sees nuns following this regime until they are 72 or 75 or even older. Not too long ago there was a priest who, in Lent, only ate in the evening, even though he was 87 years old, and lived till he was 92.
On Holy Saturday, they extinguish the lights throughout the entire house, and during the Office they bring back the newly blessed fire.
The nuns’ habits are coarse, and there is neither gold nor silver in their church vestments.
The Abbey receives girls without a dowry, and makes neither pacts or conventions for the reception of nuns, following the primitive spirit of their monastery, as is clear from the following acts:
“Be it known to all men that I, Eudes de Thiverval, esquire, and Thècle my wife gave in pure and perpetual alms, for the salvation of our souls and those of our ancestors, two bushels of corn, that is, one of winter-crop and the other of oats from our tithe-district of Jouy, to the Church of Our Lady of Port-Royal and the nuns serving God therein, to be collected every day on the feast of St Remigius. Be it known that the Abbess and Convent of the said place freely received one of our daughters into their society of nuns. Not wishing to incur the vice of ingratitude, we have given the said two bushels of corn in alms to the said House of our will without any pact. Which, that it may remain ratified and fixed, we have made to be confirmed by the support of our seal. Done in the year of grace 1216.”8
“Renaud, by the grace of God bishop of Chartres, to all who would earlier or later inspect the present page, in the Lord greeting. We make it known to all future and present that by these presents that the Abbess and Convent of Nuns of Porrois [i.e. Port-Royal] freely received in charity Asceline, daughter of Hugues de Marchais, esquire, as a sister and nun of God. Thereafter the said esquire, lest he should give away his said daughter to be betrothed to Christ without a dowry from part of his patrimony, standing in our presence did give and grant to the Church of Porrois and the nuns serving God therein in perpetual alms for the portion of his said daughter the return of one annual bushel of corn in his grange of Marchais or Lonville to be collected every year in the Paris measure of Dourdan, and three firkins of wine in his vineyard of Marchais to be collected yearly, and ten shillings in his census-district of Marchais. That his gift may remain ratified and fixed, at the petition of the same Hugues we have made the present letters to be confirmed by our seal in testimony. Done at Chartres in the year of the Incarnation of Our Lord 1217, in the month of April.”9
“Be it known to all them that I, Odeline de Sèvre, gave in pure and perpetual alms to the house of Port-Royal for the soul of my late husband Enguerrand of happy memory, and for the salvation of my soul, and of all my children and ancestors, and especially for the salvation and love of my daughter Marguerite who received the religious habit in the same house, four arpents of vine in my clos of Sèvre to be possessed in perpetuity. My sons Gervais the eldest, Roger, and Simon praised, willed, and granted this donation, to whom it belonged by hereditary right. And further we offered the same donation with the book upon the altar of Port-Royal. In testimony and perpetual confirmation whereof, since by said sons Gervais, Roger, and Simon were not yet esquires and did not yet have seals, I the said Odeline confirmed the present charter by the support of my seal with their will and convent. Done on the year of our Lord 1228.”10
Author’s note: [After the Abbey’s suppression] the altar and choir stalls were purchased by the Cistercian nuns of Paris and placed in their church, where one can see them.
Hic jacent duae sorores germanae, hujus praesentis Abbatiae Moniales Deo sacratae, Adelina et Nicholaa dictae ad Pedem, de Stampis quondam progenitae: quarum animae in pace perpetua requiescant. Amen. Obiit dicta Adelina anno Domini M. C. C. octog. octavo.
Author’s note: See Fulbert. Epist. 2 ad Finard. Rituale Rotomag. ann. 1651.
Hic requievit, ibi post cujus nomen habebis. Margareta fuit Matthæi Malliancensis Uxor; & hanc genuit generosus Guido Levensis. Sex parit ista mares. Vir obit. Petit hæc Moniales. Intra claustrales elegit esse lares. In requie multa sit Nonnæ veste sepulta; Luceat æterna sibi lux in pace suprema. Anno M. C. bis, LX. bis, V. semel, I. bis.
D. O. M. Hic jacet Emmanuel le Cerf, qui cum majorem vitæ partem erudiendis populis consumpsisset, vitam evangelicam evanglicæ prædicationi anteponendam ratus, ut sibi moreretur, qui aliis tantum vixerat, ad pœnitentiam accurrit senex eo festinantius, quo serius; pondusque ipsum senectutis, quo nihil ad patiendum aptius, et varios corporis morbos in remedium animæ conversos, tanquam opportunum æternitatis viaticum amplexus; mortem humilis, nec se jam sacerdotem, sed laicum gerens, in hoc quietis portu expectavit, quæ obtigit fere nonagenario. Obiit 8 Decembris 1674 et in Cœmeterio prope Crucem sepeliri voluit. Requiescat in pace.
Hic quiescit Joannes Hamon Medicus, qui adolescentia in studiis litterarum transacta, latine græceque egregie doctus, cum in Academia Parisiensi eloquentiæ laude floreret, et medendi peritia in dies inclaresceret, famae blandientis insidias et superbiam vitæ metuens, Spiritus impetu subito percitus, patrimonii pretio in sinum pauperum festinanter effuso, anno ætatis xxxiij in solitudinem hanc, quam diu jam meditabatur, se proripuit. Ubi primum opere rustico exercitus, tum Christi ministris famulatus, mox professioni pristinæ redditus, membra Redemptoris infirma curans in pauperibus, inter quos ancillas Christi quasi sponsas Domini sui suspexit; veste vilissima, jejuniis prope quotidianis, cubatione in asseribus, pervigiliis, precatione, et meditatione diu noctuque fere perpetua, lucubrationibus amorem Dei undique spirantibus, cumulavit ærumnas medendi quas toleravit per annos xxxvj quotidiano pedestri xij plus minus milliarum itinere, quod sæpissime jejunus conficiebat, villarum obiens ægros, eorumque commodis serviens consilio, manu, medicamentis, alimentis, quibus se defraudabat, pane furfureo et aqua, idque clam et solus, et stando per annos xxij. sustentans vitam, quam ut sapienter duxerat, quasi quotidie moriturus, ita inter fratrum preces et lacrymas in alto silentio, misericordias Domini suavissime recolens; atque in Mediatorem Dei et hominum Jesum Christum, oculis, mente, t corde defixus, exitu ad votum suum tranquillo lætus, ut æternum victurus clausit in Domino, annos natus 69 dies 20 viij Kalend. Mart. anni 1687.
Noverint universi quod ego Odo de Tiverval miles et Thecla uxor mea dedimus in puram et perpetuam eleemosynam, pro remedio animarum nostrarum et antecessorum nostrorum, Ecclesiae beatae Mariae de Portu-Regio et Monialibus ibidem Deo servientibus duos modios bladi, unum scilicet hibernagii, et alterum avenae in decima nostra de Joüy, singulis annis in festo S. Remigii percipiendos. Sciendum vero est quod Abbatissa et ejusdem loci Conventus unam de filiabus nostris in societatem Monialium benignereceperunt. Nos vero ingratudinis vitium incurrere nolentes, praedictos duos modios dictae jam domui de voluntate nostra sine aliquo pactoeleemosynavimus. Quod ut ratum et immobile perseveret, sigilli nostri munimine fecimus roborari. Actum anno gratiae M. CC. xvj.
Reginaldus Dei gratia Cartonensis Episcopus, universis primis et posteris praesentem paginam inspecturis salutem in Domino. Notum facimus omnibus tam futuris quam praesentibus quod, quoniam Abbatissa et Conventus Sanctimonialium de Porregio Acelinam filiam Hugonis de Marchesio militis in sororem et sanctimonialiem Dei et caritatis intuitu gratis receperant, postmodum dictus miles in nostra constitutus praesentia, ne dictam filiam suam nuptam Christi parte sui patrominii relinqueret indotatam, Ecclesiae de Porregio et Monialibus ibi Deo servientibus dedit et concessit in perpetuam eleemosynam, pro portione dictae filiae suae unum modium bladi annui redditus in granchia sua de Marchesio vel de Lonvilla singulis annis percipiendum ad mensuram Parisiensem de Dordano, et tres modios vini in vinea sua de Marchesio annuatim percipiendos, et decem solidos in censu suo de Marchesio. Ut autem donum ejus ratum et stabile permaneret, ad petitionem ipsius Hugonis praesentes Litteras in testimonium sigillo nostro fecimus roborari. Actum Carnoti anno Dominicae Incarnationis M. CC. septimo decimo, mense Aprili.
Noverint universi quod ego Odelina de Sèvre donavi in puram et perpetuam eleemosynam domui Portus-Regis pro anima bonae memoriae Ingeranni quondam mariti mei, et pro salute animae meae, et omnium liberorum et progenitorum meorum; et maxime pro salute et amore Margaretae filiae meae quae in eadem domo religionis habitum assumpserat, quatuor arpentos vineae in clauso meo de Sèvre jure perpetuo possidendos. Hanc autem donationem laudaverunt, voluerunt et concesserunt filii mei Gervasius primogenitus, Rogerus et Simon, ad quos eadem donatio jure hereditario pertinebat. Immo et ipsi eandem donationem obtulimus cum libro super altare Portus Regis. In cujus rei testimonium et conformationem perpetuam ego praedicta Odelina, quia praedicti filii mei G. R. et Simon necdum milites erant, et necdum sigilla habebant, de voluntate eorum et assensu praesentem Chartam sigilli mei munimine roboravi. Actum anno Domini M. CC. vigesimo octavo.
Ascensiontide is perhaps my favorite season of the Church Kalendar for personal as well as theological reasons. And so I am delighted to share with my readers an extremely good post over at Canticum Salomonis, featuring a translated sermon by Honorius Augustodunensis (c. 1080-1154), a lesser-known contemporary of St. Bernard. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of this richly-illustrated translation:
The sun was raised aloft, and the moon stood still in her course. Christ is the eternal sun who sheds his radiance upon all the choirs of angels; he is the true light who enlightens every soul, who long lay concealed behind the cloud of his flesh, wreathed in the shadows of our frailty. Emerging at last from the shadows of Hell, today he rises gloriously above the stars and, raised above all the decorated ranks of angels, he sits, Lord of majesty, at the right hand of the Father. The moon, that is the Church, stands still in her course, gleaming in his light, when in the person of the apostles she saw him ascend into heaven. For the apostles showed themselves to be the Church’s course when they taught her the course of good living, and taught her how to order her course after the Sun of justice. O! what brilliant horns the new-born moon has beamed forth today, when the Sun reaching the heights of heaven has infused her with a ray of eternal light! O! how serene her face as she stood in her course, when she saw her flesh penetrate the heavens in her Head, her Redeemer, her Spouse, her God! She saw them, I say, through the eyes of the apostolic chorus, who were her course, and of the Virgin Mother of God, her type! O what joy burst forth today among the angels in heaven when the Son of God, who had gone from his palace into the Prison for the sake of his servant, yea from his fatherland into banishment, an exile for an exile, now returns in triumph to his Father’s kingdom! And so today is clept the day of God’s triumph, when the victor over death triumphant was welcomed by the senate of the celestial court with hymnic praises, glorifying the author of life!
Honoratus Augustodunensis, On Our Lord’s Ascension
Read the whole thing, and have a blessed Ascension Day.
I must refer my readers to two very moving pieces written by two dear friends of mine. Both are intensely personal and both are profound meditations on the present moment as a lived reality. The first is an almost Pascalian intervention from Mr. Jackson Wolford, who writes that our first task in this crisis – before any interpretations of what is going on all around us – is to witness the suffering. The second is a quiet reflection on impending fatherhood from Mr. Nathan Goodroe. He considers what it means to face the birth of a child in the midst of suffering through an extended look at the Holy Family’s trek to Bethlehem. We may be in Holy Week, but I still found his words to be very timely. In fact, both are. Please give them a read.
I reproduce below an adaptation of the notes I took after each episode of The New Pope, which were then posted in a private Facebook group of like-minded Catholics dedicated to the series. Rather than give a full summary evaluation of The New Pope, I thought readers would find this more process-based approach to be interesting, as it shows how my reactions changed over time. That said, I may post something a bit more all-encompassing later. A word of warning: what follows is spoiler-heavy.
Thoughts on Episode 1:
1) It’s gorgeous as ever. 2) Somehow I don’t get the impression that Paolo Sorrentino is very impressed with this pontificate. 3) I guffawed at the video game scene. 4) Looks like this season is going to be, at least in part, an homage to Hadrian the Seventh. 5) I was surprised by how rooted this season is in Italy’s migration crisis 6) The music continues to be brilliant. 7) Silvio Orlando really is an underrated actor. 8) Honestly I thought to myself “Neon Baroque could be my new aesthetic.”
Thoughts on Episode 2:
1) Sorrentino doesn’t understand the English. He has made Brannox into a French decadent, not an English ecclesiastical peer. Though this episode makes me want to see Malkovich as Huysmans. 2) Gutierrez remains the best character. 3) We start to see again Sorrentino’s spiritual tendency for short, sometimes aphoristic enunciations of truth. 4) The continuing importance of the terrorist message makes me suspect Brannox will end like Hadrian VII, only with a jihadist in place of an Ulsterman. 5) Speaking of which, interesting echoes of a lot of English Catholic literary tradition here: Hadrian the Seventh, Newman, Brideshead, even arguably Oscar Wilde. 6) I can’t tell whether the line about the Church “thinking” is a criticism or not. I suspect it’s like Greenland’s ice. 7) Loneliness remains one of the central themes of the series.
Thoughts on Episode 3:
1) The last scene(s) manage at once to be extremely Baroque and extremely Gothic. I was reminded of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. 2) Malkopope has arrived, he’s screaming, and I am so here for it. 3) I remain surprised by Sorrentino’s political imagery here. The massacre in Somalia is not the sort of thing one is used to seeing on HBO. 4) Fabiano looks like Michael Jackson and reminded me of the Purple Man in The Violent Bear It Away. 5) It’s still all about loneliness. 6) JP3 is an interesting choice of name. In view of his two speeches, I wonder if the emphasis on “fragility” is in some sense evoking JP2 specifically. Regardless, I suspect it foreshadows something yet to come, or perhaps some secret we have yet to learn. 7) The Meghan Markle jokes were great. Sorrentino’s much funnier – or rather, telling a lot more jokes – in this season. 8 ) Love the dwarf abbess. I wonder if the scene where she’s smoking is a reference to Nasty Habits?
Thoughts on Episode 4:
1) Kind of a boring episode overall. 2) We’re in the slump of sin, where all the characters are at their lowest. Or at least will soon be. 3) Cardinal Assente dancing at the end was fun, but also strangely sad. He’s dancing alone. There is a poignant metaphor here – I was reminded of some of the sadder passages in Frédéric Martel. 4) The Marilyn Manson bit and the further Meghan Markle jokes were hilarious. 5) Return of the Willendorf Venus! 6) This is such a continental show. 7) Malkopope is really starting to grow on me. 8) Gutierrez remains the best because he repents of his sin immediately and receives sacramental absolution. 9) The scene with the gropey priest is like something out of a bad French novel of the 1760s. 10) With Sister Lisette et al., I think Sorrentino is satirizing activist nuns.
Thoughts on Episode 5:
1) Really getting the impression that Sorrentino is a low-key reactionary. Giving a fair explanation of Catholic teaching on homosexuality, implicitly deriding the banality of contemporary Catholic artistic culture, discussion of jihadist attacks on Christians in Europe? Obviously this might reverse in future episodes, but it’s noticeable at this point. 2) Finally getting some proper Sorrentinean surrealism at last. 3) Favorite line in the whole episode came from Sophia – “The Pope produces symbols. The vulgar act of interpretation must fall to others.” 4) The scene with Girolamo and Don Mimmo was beautiful, and I thought, quite moving. 5) I just noticed that Sophia’s name is…well, Sophia. I’m starting to wonder if this is meaningful. 6) Pursuant to point (1) above, I think it’s telling that Gutierrez’s ongoing fling (affair?) with Freddy coincides with a relapse in his alcoholism. This is astounding, given that today the normal depiction of such a relationship would be as a celebration of liberation. Sorrentino suggests it’s the opposite. 7) Disappointed that the strategy is not to “punish” pedophiles, though perhaps the emphasis there was more on adult sexual scandals…? 8) Also Gutierrez in general has been sorely neglected on the whole. He’s not moving the plot anywhere. At all. 9) Based on what I’ve seen so far, I do think Sorrentino is commenting on church politics a good deal more here than he did in The Young Pope. Francis II, Sr. Lisette’s strike, JP3’s elevation of a manifestly corrupt Cardinal…these all have wider resonances in recent church history. And I do wonder whether the cult of Lenny Belardo is in some sense a moment where Sorrentino is reflecting on some of the reception of the show itself. 10) The “No!” at Lourdes reminds me of John Paul II’s “We want God” moment in Poland.
Thoughts on Episode 6:
1) Fr Leopold Essence is probably the devil but he mainly reminded me of the Cowboy from Mulholland Drive. He’s literally an accuser, and he accuses by drawing attention to distorted love. 2) He’s an American, too. The only other major American character in this show, without Sister Mary, is Lenny. Is Lenny then the most intelligent man on earth? 3) Wasn’t there some 19th c. Ultramontane who made a comment about the Pope being the most intelligent man on earth because of the charism of infused infallible knowledge? 4) So God is a millipede and the devil is a cockroach? 5) Relatedly, that opening scene is so well shot. It’s just a master class in cinematic art. 6) The dancing midget nun is giving Cardinal Essente a run for his money 7) Creepy old incest mom has a German accent. This seems potentially significant. Atanasio (interesting, unusual name) has had “Nature turn against him.” All of Esther’s storyline, up to now largely detached from the main plot, feels increasingly like a parable. In any other hands it would all seem really very trite like some cheap Victorian novel. But Sorrentino somehow elevates it. 8) Voiello’s sidelining under JP3 reminds me of the similarly disastrous personnel decisions made by JP2 9) The Kabul exile of Hernandez reminds me of Bugnini 10) “There is no room left for poetry” – a great line and a cutting diagnosis. Also, the fact that this line comes where it does in that scene confirms my hypothesis about the broader point of the nuns being a satire of activist sisters as well as liberal/feminist Catholics more generall 11) I wonder if that same line can be taken as a Sorrentinean commentary on gender relations writ large? The struggle for rights has deprived us of poetry… 12) What a surprise; wealthy incest lady is also a racist. She also has a perverse vision of sanctity based on “human warmth.” Interesting. 13) There’s an interesting parallel between Brannox’s interview and Lenny’s Venice speech. Both collapse in their separate ways while their disapproving parents are (potentially) watching. 14) I called the drug addiction early on. 15) This addiction puts Brannox in an interesting parallel with Gutierrez. 16) The moment when Atanasio embraces Esther is I think when that storyline really changed. It was such a terribly sad moment…one could suddenly see past the sexuality of it and instead perceive the fundamental tragedy of the situation, the total lack of human connection and the joyous simplicity of human touch. And yet it also reinforces the underlying loneliness of all parties involved. 17) Good to see Lenny’s still a Saint. 18) Spalletta, thy name is Dziwisz. 19) Increasingly I think Hernandez was invented to de-Sodanoize Voiello for the Italian audience. Voiello in Season 2 gets to engage in the heroic acts that Voiello in Season 1 (clearly modeled on Sodano and Bertone) never could. 20) Voiello really kinda is the center of the whole series isn’t he? In sort of the same way that the bureaucracy or the civil service outlasts pontificates. 21) Brannox on evil, like Brannox on tenderness, really reminds me of JP2 in his more anti-communist and moralistic moments. 22) Sex is so sad in this show. 23) It occurred to me for the first time how silly those Lenny sweatshirts are. He never allowed himself to be photographed, so how did they get a photo of him in cope and tiara? Little details that get overlooked…
Thoughts on Episode 7:
1) I was struck by how Sorrentino uses motion and stillness in this episode. When we meet the doctor’s wife, she is rigid and almost lifeless. As she becomes more open to happiness again, she’s able to walk like a model again – to walk beautifully, even artistically. Yet upon her return to her son, she returns to a statuesque stillness. The difference is that now, her stillness is itself artistic – a close imitation of the Pietà, seen a few times throughout the episode. It’s as if there’s a return to suffering, but now it has been transfigured into a kind of beauty (by grace?). 2) A Pope paralyzed by his own physiological problems, surrounded by evil counselors, and unable or unwilling to respond to crimes in the church? No wonder they named Malkopope John Paul III. 3) I’m somehow strangely reassured by the fact that Lenny is the same old Lenny. 4) Really getting tired of all the magical disabled people tropes. Eric is the fourth or fifth this season alone. 5) Venice at night is so typically Sorrentinean. I was reminded of “Youth.” 6) Gutierrez remains the soundest bearer of truth. His words in the confessional were, I thought, quite moving. 7) The “Purification” scene was aesthetically stunning. It was as if Gustav Klimt and Anselm Kiefer had collaborated on a film. The second time I watched it, I struggled not to get emotional. The silent desperation, the simplicity, the beauty – it’s all so moving. 8) Eric’s miracle is the inverse of Sister Antonia’s, I think – both find death at Lenny’s prayers, but one achieves heaven. 9) The opening scene on the heavenly beach was very funny. I also think it was a kind of reverse foreshadowing of the “Purification” scene, the other moment on a beach in this episode. 10) It occurred to me for the first time how fixated Sorrentino is with the upper classes. Almost all of his work focuses on elites. One wonders if he chooses such stories in part just to film in such gorgeous locations as the doctor’s palace.
Thoughts on Episode 8:
1) I applaud everything Lenny says to the nuns, which is absolutely spot-on. Sorrentino deserves more credit for his understanding of Catholicism. 2) Brannox’s comments on loneliness are one of the more movingly human moments of the series – as are the strange, not-quite-erotic snatches of intimacy between him and Sophia. 3) Voiello’s eulogy was a bit saccharine. Of all the three “speeches” in this episode, his was the weakest. But it was sort of a nice moment of growth for Voiello overall. 4) Assente is awful and I’m glad he got what was coming to him. Voiello proves himself to be that immortal archetype of Italian literature, the crafty, pragmatic priest who snatches victory from the jaws of defeat (I am reminded of Father Pirrone in “Il Gattopardo”). 5) I have reversed my evaluation of Essence. He and Bauer may instead be avenging angels rather than devils, especially in view of their ambush of Spalletta and Co. 6) Why does Bauer use such an outdated phone? 7) Sorrentino really manages to get some beautiful rooms as sets. 8) It really bothers me that the clergy were all wearing the wrong color at the funeral. Requiems – except for Popes – don’t use red! Also, the Latin was incorrect (right?), though I appreciated the effort. 9) One of the key motifs of this episode was the tease. We see moments of relational, almost erotic, teasing from Sophia in her interactions with Brannox at the chalet. Don Camillo’s trick with Assente is a kind of emotional teasing. Lenny teases Voiello with ostensible knowledge about the upcoming football season. There were, I think, a few other examples. I don’t know why Sorrentino relies upon this motif here, but it was really noticeable.
Thoughts on Episode 9:
1) That scene in the Sistine Chapel when Pius XIII is lined up with all the cardinals and John Paul III – an extremely powerful aesthetic. Matched only by the Neon Nuns in this season. 2) I really loved Malkovich’s speech from the balcony, which was the strongest in the episode. It was theologically rich, poetic, and delivered in that certain screaming je ne sais quoi that only Malkovich possesses. 3) It occurs to me that there are, as it were, four titular “New Popes” in this series. Francis II, John Paul III, the reformed Pius XIII, and Voiello. 4) The twist with the terrorists is a kind of inversion of Hadrian VII’s ending, which is interesting given the extent to which this season draws upon that narrative throughout. 5) Unclear to me whether Gutierrez (criminally underutilized in this season on the whole) and Brannox have in fact ended up betraying their vows of chastity? We can probably presume the young nun has. Is Sorrentino taking a left turn and endorsing love and sex for all? I don’t know. It would be uncharacteristic and a huge leap from the rest of the series. But perhaps the whole point is in the ambiguity. Isn’t that, after all, the ultimate message of Lenny’s last speech? We don’t have all the answers, and worrying about them too much spoils things. 6) Speaking of speeches, it seems that Sorrentino still doesn’t quite grasp how rhetorical binaries work. Lenny’s “Am I x or am I y” bit echoed the “Are we a or are we b” in the Venice speech on the Blessed Juana. And as then, I’m not sure it really worked. 7) Esther’s story was deeply sad. I’m not totally sure what to make of it – I no longer think it’s a parable (at least not from Episode 7 onward). But it does seem like a critique of a certain kind of an especially Italian devotionalism. It rhymes with his treatment of Tonino Pettola in Season 1, just as Francis II rhymes with Sister Antonia. Sorrentino seems to hate fanaticism. 8) On that note, I absolutely loved the Tonino Pettola call-back at the last shot. 9) I would have liked one last appearance from Leopold Essence since we got so much from Bauer. The scene with the American general was quite funny, though. 10) It seems that, in the end, most of the main characters ended their arc with some kind of love. Brannox gets his parents back. Lenny gets the love of the people, then dies and becomes a real saint. Sophia gets the love of a man she admires (though it’s unclear whether or not their love is sexual). Voiello has a new child to care for, the only love he really knows how to show. Gutierrez may be back with Freddy, but if nothing else, he seems to have kicked his alcoholism and is very happy. Our Romeo and Juliet of the Vatican are reunited with their child. The doctor and his wife are expecting a new baby. Even Bauer is going to marry his escort, like Hosea marrying a prostitute. Perhaps this is the point – the chief thing, the real happy ending, is love. If the question of the series is loneliness, the answer, insofar as we can find one (and Lenny would say the answer belongs to God), is love. 11) And thus, no one except Esther ends up lonely in the end. There seems to be a kind of narrative cruelty in this. But then again, don’t kill priests if you don’t want to go to prison. 12) What the hell was on the walls when Brannox and Lenny have their final confrontation? Very weird, disturbing art. 13) The insistence upon Don Antonio being a “good priest” is encouraging and, I think, representative of Sorrentino’s particular take on Catholicism. Alongside all the aestheticism and insistence on mystery (Pius XIII), there’s both a certain moderation when it comes to the rules (represented by both Voiello and John Paul III) as well as a recognition of real heroism and sacrifice (the various martyrs throughout this season). 14) That said, I think what I most missed in The New Pope was the witty spirituality, that sort of esprit d’escalier of the soul that Sorrentino peppered throughout The Young Pope. There were, to be sure, a few great zingers this season, but nothing that matches “The weight of God” or “Absence is presence” or “What’s under all that ice?” from The Young Pope. Which is odd, I think, since John Paul III seems like an aphoristic character. 15) I guess my other criticism of the season as a whole is that it was, at times, a little too diffuse. Part of what made TYP so powerful was the network of relations radiating out of the fascinatingly complex central character: the agon with his mentor, Cardinal Spencer, the loss of his brother, Dussolier, the foster-motherhood of Sister Mary, the rivalry with Voiello, the unfolding friendship with Gutierrez, and of course, the pain of his abandonment by the parents who leave him again in Venice. Although TYP hardly possesses a linear plot, it at least managed to dive deeply into the psychology and spiritual development of one character. It had a shape. It easily became iconic. But as good as The New Pope is, it doesn’t quite cohere in the same way. It loses itself at times, in part because it’s never quite clear whose story it is. 16) Even the surrealism has been weaker throughout. Remember, the very first scene of TYP is Lenny crawling out of a pyramid of babies at St. Mark’s Square. Where was the equivalent of the kangaroo? A dog doesn’t rise to nearly the same oddity and is thus a far weaker visual and narrative symbol. No one was lusting after the Willendorf Venus this time. No one saw all the Popes of history lined up in a semi-dream sequence (again, another great zinger – “Power is a banal platitude”), or anything like it. The closest we ever got was that absolutely wonderful, Lynchian scene with Leopold Essence and Sophia in the Vatican cantina. More of that would have been salutary. 17) On the whole, though, this was the best thing on television for the last few months, bar none. And even in view of its imperfections, I do think the show says something valuable about Catholicism, about loneliness, and about love. Although COVID certainly complicates this – and I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary – I think I would like to see a third season about Voiello’s papacy. We shall see.