Then, at last, when he had crossed the Old Road, and had gone by the Lightning-struck Land and the Fisherman’s Well, he found, between the forest and the mountain, a very ancient and little chapel; and now he heard the bell of the saint ringing clearly and so sweetly that it was as it were the singing of the angels. Within it was very dark and there was silence. He knelt and saw scarcely that the chapel was divided into two parts by a screen that rose up to the round roof. There was a glinting of shapes as if golden figures were painted on this screen, and through the joinings of its beams there streamed out thin needles of white splendour as if within there was a light greater than that of the sun at noonday. And the flesh began to tremble, for all the place was filled with the odours of Paradise, and he heard the ringing of the Holy Bell and the voices of the choir that out-sang the Fairy Birds of Rhiannon, crying and proclaiming:
“Glory and praise to the Conqueror of Death: to the Fountain of Life Unending.“
Nine times they sang this anthem, and then the whole place was filled with blinding light. For a door in the screen had been opened, and there came forth an old man, all in shining white, on whose head was a gold crown. Before him went one who rang the bell; on each side there were young men with torches; and in his hands he bore the Mystery of Mysteries wrapped about in veils of gold and of all colours, so that it might not be discerned; and so he passed before the screen, and the light of heaven burst forth from that which he held. Then he entered in again by a door that was on the other side, and the Holy Things were hidden.
Yesterday was a liturgical confluence of some personal importance for me: St. Philip Neri, St. Augustine of Canterbury, and the Ascension. The liturgical Providence of God thus epitomized my full life of faith on one day. St. Philip Neri, whom I love particularly among all the saints, stands as a good figure for my past. The Ascension points to my own future hope of salvation, when I might join the Ascended Christ, my King and High Priest, in Heaven. To quote a favorite hymn:
The great I AM hath sworn; I on His oath depend. I shall, on eagle wings upborne, to heaven ascend. I shall behold His face; I shall His power adore, and sing the wonders of His grace forevermore.
That leaves St. Augustine of Canterbury, father of the English Church. He is the sign of my present.
On that triple feast, I made my confession in the Episcopal Church and was conditionally baptized under the patronage of the Blessed Patriarch Enoch, “who walked with God” (Gen. 5:24). I then took communion for the first time since Leap Day 2020. As Pascal put it, “Joie, joie, joie, pleurs de joie.”
I have long held some doubts about the validity of my Methodist baptism as an infant in 1995—for which I have no records beyond family photos, but which was for some reason acceptable to my parish and Archdiocese when I completed RCIA. I thus felt it was necessary to rectify that situation. I am now, without any doubt, baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The reason I did this in the Episcopal Church and not a Roman Catholic one is that, for nearly a year, I have been attending my local Anglo-Catholic parish. St. John’s, Bellefonte, has been a tremendously edifying community. Indeed, it is the only parish where I have felt genuinely wanted, and not simply tolerated. I started attending last summer in the midst of a very deep spiritual crisis. This crisis, which had been percolating off and on since August of 2018, was one that, had I stayed a churchgoing Roman, would certainly have caused me to leave Christianity altogether. It was only by the grace of God that I found spiritual sustenance and safe harbor at St. John’s. It felt like escaping into fresh air from a very large building which is slowly filling with smoke, because an unchecked fire is raging in its wings. It felt like jumping into a lifeboat from a rather majestic cruise-ship that is sinking, even as people keep dancing and the band plays on. It felt like escaping to a beloved aunt from a bad mother who beats you mercilessly (even when you do what she says!) and denigrates you at every opportunity, taking every chance to remind you how much better your siblings are—all while claiming to love you. A mother who asks for tremendous sacrifices and gives no help to accomplish them. A mother who requires all until she forbids all, and forbids all until she requires all, and then demands you forget everything that came before. The Church is a bad mother, not just because of her many spiritual abuses, but precisely because she is inconsistent, all while claiming that such inconsistency is impossible! And who do we believe: the Church, or our lying eyes?
I did not advertise my transition to regular worship in a TEC church because I wanted to see if I might find any reason to stay in Rome, both through my online interactions and when I went to Catholic Masses upon my visits home. But the hook that I was half-hoping would convince me to stay on the far side of the Tiber never appeared. If anything, I became even more convinced that I should leave. And then, as the day drew near and the details were finalized, I did not tell anyone because I did not want to risk losing my nerve in the face of the old psychological traps. But now that the deed is done, I can, like Ozymandias, explain my “master-stroke” a bit.
I have never written the story of my conversion to Roman Catholicism; somehow, describing my loss of faith is even harder. I am not going to do that here. This is not my Apologia Pro Vita Sua. And I am not here to write a Chick Tract; I remain grateful for much of what I received in the Church of Rome in happier days. I know that no matter what I say, it will not be adequate to describe my own sense of disillusionment, of loss, of bitterness. And I know that, even were I to express at great length, with reason and evidence, all of my historical and theological misgivings about the post-Vatican I Papal Church, or my serious doubts engendered by the still-unresolved Silverstream scandal and similar cases, it would still not matter; many of you will attribute everything to my personal life. So be it.
I don’t feel that I need to justify myself. But I will state my position, briefly.
I have done what I needed to do for the very survival of my faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I repudiate nothing of Catholic Tradition that is true, and good and beautiful; I reject everything that causes scandal, disedification, and injury to the Kingdom of God. I embrace the traditional, episcopal, conciliar constitution of the Church which still exists, however imperfectly, in the Anglican Communion (itself in communion with the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht). And, with all my heart, I abjure the Pope.
I emphatically don’t wish to burn any bridges with my many Roman acquaintances by this disagreement with their theology and separation from their communion. Mostly, I am leaving behind friends. That is my only sadness. I have countless fond memories—Easter Vigils in Charlottesville celebrated with friends, stirring moments of devotion and worship next to friends at the various British Oratories of St. Philip Neri, giving the eulogy at my own grandmother’s Catholic funeral in Aiken, and everywhere engaging in edifying conversations with friends who genuinely believe in Christ and will reach Heaven before me. I wish them well. As long as I could focus on orthopraxy beside such wonderful people, I could ignore the tremendous unpleasantness and the doublethink that being a Roman Catholic actually entailed for me personally.
But I can’t do it anymore. I have no regrets about my decision. God will draw us all together in the last day. I have no doubt that I have not left the one eternal Church of Christ. I have simply moved to a different (healthier?) part of it, one where God in His mercy has deigned to meet me in my terrible distress. To quote a man holier than me, “A mark of the Christian Church is that it is catholic, embracing all the angels of heaven, all the elect and the just on earth, and of all times.” And again: “There is nothing more spacious than the Church of God; because all the elect and the just of all ages comprise it.”
I have come to realize that all I can do to persevere in that Church is trust in the grace of God, focus on the local, and work out my salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). I am under no illusions that my new home will be perfect, that it is free of divisive error, or that I will always be happy here. But neither is Rome: it was full of rather shocking evil, various divisive errors, and keen, mounting unhappiness for me personally.
Anglicanism is not perfect. Even as someone convinced of the historical validity of Anglican orders, I recognize this. It is wracked with schism. There are rather atrocious liturgical abuses from time to time. People like John Shelby Spong, James Pike, and John A.T. Robinson exist in their episcopate. Most seriously, there are sexual abuse scandals here, too.
But Anglicans’ focus on Christ and the Scriptures, their minimalist approach to doctrine, their “inclusive orthodoxy,” their localism, their seemly forms of vernacular worship, their quiet and decorous approach to personal holiness, their epistemic humility, their irenic stance towards Christians beyond their communion, their welcome to LGBT people, their poetic and moderate devotions, their customary aversion to dogmatism and legalism and enthusiasm, their respect for conscience, their aestheticism, even their sense of humor—all of it is vastly superior to what I have found to be the modus operandi in the Roman Church, whether in the typical Novus Ordo parish or in one of the Traditionalist ghettos. But above all, I am attracted to Anglicanism because I find the faith, hope, and charity of Christ there.
And so, “I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord” (Ps. 122:1 BCP). Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, once wrote,
For while the Anglican church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to Gospel and Church and sound learning, its greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and the travail in its souls. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as “the best type of Christianity,” but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died. Hence its story can never differ from the story of the Corinth to which the Apostle wrote. Like Corinth, it has those of Paul, of Peter, or Apollos; like Corinth, it has nothing that it has not received; like Corinth, it learns of unity through its nothingness before the Cross of Christ; and, like Corinth, it sees in the Apostolate its dependence upon the one people of God, and the death by which every member and every Church bears witness to the Body which is one.
Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, pg, 188; emphasis my own
This ecclesiological vision rather perfectly captures my own view of the Church, a view I have tried to express elsewhere.
And to be quite honest, becoming an Anglican feels a bit like coming home. And not just because, during the Evensong which immediately preceded my baptism, we happened to recite Psalm 24, my old school Psalm. During my first conversion, family friends in the Anglican Continuum were very kind to me and nurtured my fledgling faith. My first copy of the Book of Common Prayer was given to me by another dear family friend, who has since departed this mortal life. Her funeral in Virginia was, I think, one of the first proper Episcopalian liturgies I ever attended (and sang at). I spent two years as a graduate student at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, one of the most Anglo-Catholic seminaries in the Church of England. It is a community of men and women to whom I will be forever grateful. There are many others to thank, among whom I will mention only those who directly and personally encouraged my conversion since last summer: Father B., Mother R., Father J., Father S., CD, KH, RB, JC, and my interlocutors in the EC. You know who you are. I confess, I am grateful as well to those few Roman Catholic friends who, whether out of affection for me or sincere piety, did try to persuade me to stay.
Most of all, I have to thank the people of St. John’s, including my priest, Fr. Carlos de la Torre, a truly tremendous pastor, and Deacon Alex Dyakiw, who has shown me nothing but kindness and who stood as godfather for me. If I ever reach heaven, it will be in no small part due to the example, charity, and prayers of these two good and faithful servants.
There was a moment at the last Easter Vigil that furnished a perfect picture of what I have received at St. John’s. I got to the church early and was so absorbed in my pre-Mass readings that I forgot to pick up a candle. Once the Vigil started at the back of the nave, I realized that I was the only one without a light. Yet my priest, seeing my lack, brought me one. He graciously let me light it—while he was processing with the paschal candle up the aisle. He even paused the procession to give me the flame. This little moment, which no one but me would remember, was a powerful image of grace itself, and how it works in our hearts. That grace, which binds us to the very life of Christ, brings us into the New Jerusalem, builds us into the Eternal Temple, and makes us members incorporate of the Kingdom of God—that almighty grace is “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42). It is because of that grace that I can say, with a confidence born of faith,
One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.
Psalm 27:4 KJV
It by that grace that I have been baptized into the Jordan, by that grace that I have swum the Thames, and by that grace that II hope to drink one day from another, supernal river, flowing from the Throne of God and the Lamb (Rev. 22:1). I beg your prayers that I may always be faithful to the grace that I have received.
And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen. – Luke 24: 50-53
Many years ago, shortly after the start of my faith journey, I received some very good advice from an Anglican friend of mine. Or rather, I received a very good prayer. She told me that whenever she was anxious or worried or stressed about anything, she resorted to a prayer that ran like this:
“Jesus Christ is my High Priest, and He will always see me through.”
There is much consolation in these simple words, as I have had frequent occasion to learn in the years since then. And, to be honest, I am most drawn to Christ in the mystery of His High Priesthood. I often find myself asking Him to pray for me, not in the sense that one asks a friend or a saint to pray, but as one can only ask a sovereign and perfect intercessor. This sense of Christ as High Priest has become part of the basic structure of my own faith. Yet today’s feast, the Ascension of Our Lord into Heaven, invites us all to dwell upon this mystery in a more explicit way.
It is a curious fact of the Church’s kalendar that in those solemnities when she most fervently celebrates the Incarnation, she also insists most firmly upon the hiddenness of God. In Christmas, we observe Christ born in a lowly shed at night, disclosing His presence only to those shepherds who resemble Him in their poverty, humility, and obscurity. Today’s feast of the Ascension is composed of a similar doubling. It brings before our eyes the Incarnation in its most radical implications—while reminding us that we live in and with Christ’s apparent absence.
It is, therefore, a salutary lesson in the virtue of Faith. I think that we too often lose sight of what Faith really is. Scripture tells us: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1 KJV). But what does this really mean?
God’s absence is felt in two ways. First, we feel it through the insistent reality of evil. The agony of the world we live in is too great, too universal, and too obvious to need any underlining. The Church is no different. How many malicious and mediocre priests seem to cloud the pure light of the Gospel! Their sin weighs more heavily, for they have been given a greater charge. Yet there is some comfort in the High Priesthood of Christ. If our earthly priests falter and fail, Christ never will. He remains forever a spotless offering in the sight of the Father, and His blood is all-cleansing. The invisible pontiff of an invisible, all-embracing, and everlasting temple, Christ never abandons His children, who linger below with expectant eyes.
Let us pass on to the second sense in which God hides Himself, leaving us with, in the words of R.S. Thomas,
this great absence that is like a presence, that compels me to address it without hope of a reply.
R.S. Thomas, “The Absence”
The past is forever dead to us, an enormous absence, a distantly glimmering mirage that fades even as we approach it. Sacred History, even supported by texts and archaeology, is not a special case. There is a sense in which the facts of the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ are no different here. We may participate in them, but we cannot directly experience them as historical events, in historical time.
So, what are we to do? How do we deal with the fact that God’s acts of revelation lie hidden behind the curtain of time? Quite simply, we must have faith. We must declare that faith is not certainty and not knowledge, but an engraced movement to trust those little lights given unto us. Those lights are, mainly, Scripture and Tradition, particularly the Liturgy, in which the Church as a body transcends the limits of earthly time through her collective remembrance. There is a tendency in Catholicism to downplay the “memorial” function of liturgy. This is a mistake. In fact, there is a sense in which the essence of the Liturgy (or rather, the Liturgies of the various Catholic Churches) is memory. But it is the memory of the Church as the very Body of Christ, a memory which realizes and re-presents the object of remembrance, not mere empty symbolism. Orthodox theologians have been better on this point than Western ones, perhaps because they have not been so fearful of the specter of Zwingli. But I digress.
All of this is to say that we cannot state with the certainty of historical science whether Sacred History is true. There is no real evidence for most of revelation, and we should not let the apologists delude us on this point. They’re far more addled by modernity than they realize. But by grace we can and should leap boldly across the chasm of our natural uncertainty, avoiding the Scylla of Apologetic Positivism and the Charybdis of Naturalistic Doubt. The result is not knowledge, which has no meaning here, but faith.
We would all be better off in a position of greater epistemological humility. For instance—let’s be honest—we have absolutely no knowledge of what happens after death. The data is inconclusive: annihilation, a flash of light, reincarnation, hauntings, purgatory, heaven and hell. We know nothing. It may seem like a commonplace, but it bears repeating, that our fate after death is a mystery. All we can do is have faith that what we have been promised is true. But none of this is certainty, not even for our own salvation. Do you know you will be saved? No. For no one can know what comes after death. Eternal hellfire or an infinity of mute blackness or a strange new human life could come instead. The only thing to do is to pray for mercy “in fear and trembling,” placing our faith in the Hidden God (Philip. 2:12).
Do not say to me that you “know” these things because you “know” your Bible or because you “know” Church teaching or even because you “know” Jesus. To be frank, I don’t believe it. In fact, I’m not confident we can know God at all, in the sense of positive knowledge. God’s existence is not like a mathematical theorem or the date of the Battle of Waterloo. Nor do I think you can know God or any of His saving mysteries like you can know another person. You cannot see God; you cannot touch Him; you cannot hear Him like you can hear a friend or lover or even a stranger passing in the street. Simply put, I don’t believe that our “knowledge” of God, the Infinite and loving ground of Being, should be called “knowledge” at all. In fact, I rather suspect that this fixation with “knowledge” has been a very substantial problem for the Church throughout her history.
To interject a personal note; I look back at my life and I sometimes wonder if I ever really knew Christ. There are others I doubt as well. False mystics and visionaries abound, as the Church chokes on her own prelest. But when I look at my own case, I remain unsure. I certainly know a lot about the Church, and have ever since I eagerly began RCIA nearly ten years ago. But did I know Christ? Was I just enamored with my own exaltation, with the fool’s-gold assurances of spiritual certainty, with the glittering baubles that float like empty bottles down the Tiber? Is it even possible to know Him? Or must we just choose, by grace, to have faith—to place our confidence in Him, trusting that He will guide us through the overwhelming darkness of uncertainty which is the very tissue of our lives?
I have come around to the latter position. The virtue of Faith has nothing to do with knowledge per se, and is as far from certainty as East from West. It is granted to us precisely because we lack certain knowledge of the immense realities it comprehends, and probably must by our very nature. Eliot writes in “Burnt Norton” that “Human kind/cannot bear very much reality.” We forget our weakness too easily.
Happily, the substance of our faith does not reside in the natural faculties of understanding. As Pascal says, “It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.” In a sense, the Ascension is the true beginning of the Christian faith in history, for it inaugurates our sensible separation from Christ. Our eyes grow dim, but not our hearts. The blindness of nature is transformed into sight by grace.
In Exodus, God tells Moses that “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.” (Ex. 33:20 KJV). The Ascension is the triumphant reversal of these words. For today, a man greater than Moses, a man greater than Enoch and greater than Elijah, but a man all the same, sees the Face of the Father. He has “ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.” Godhead wraps Himself in human nature, and humanity is plunged into the abyss of everlasting Light. A human being stands at the threshold of eternity. The Ascension brings humanity into the very Holy of Holies of the cosmos. We truly participate in this Ascension if we unite ourselves to Christ through the grace given us, especially the grace of the sacraments. If we one day enjoy the Blessed Vision of the Divine Essence, it will be through the eyes of our High Priest, our Head, the Lamb who is the Lamp of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:23). John Donne puts it thus:
Behold the Highest, parting hence away, Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon; Nor doth he by ascending show alone, But first He, and He first enters the way.
John Donne, “Ascension”
By grace, we shall follow these luminous steps, someday. So many saints have – including today’s great saint, Philip Neri, Apostle of Rome. Their stories remind us that now is the time of faith, and hope, and the charity that breathes life into both.
If the Ascension is a lesson in Faith, it is just as much a lesson in Hope. It shows us which way we must go. It tells us that we must look to the hills, from whence cometh our help (Ps. 121:1). We need go neither backwards nor forwards, neither to the East nor to the West—but rather, up. Up, into the hidden mystery of the Divine Life. Our help is not from man but from the God-Man, the one who brought our very nature beyond the veil of the celestial temple. And what do the Apostles do? They imitate their Head and repair to the visible and earthly temple, there to sing and praise and preach the Gospel of the Lord. So have all the saints throughout the long, dark centuries since the Ascension. And so should we.
But even as we tabernacle in the visible Church, we are truly cloistered in the heart of the Most High. As St. Paul writes to the Colossians,
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.
Let us pray with the Apostles that we might one day ascend with Christ. And let us ever hold in remembrance that Jesus Christ is our High Priest, and He will always see us through.
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.