Thoughts on “The New Pope”

The Neon Nuns will remain as perhaps the most striking visual component of this season. (Source)

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.”

Voiello and companions on an uncharacteristically antique and ornate British train (Source)

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.

Not gonna lie, I want one of those hoodies. (Source)

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.

“Hey, hey, hey, the gang’s all here!” (Source)

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…

“Follow the looove” – Leopold Essence’s arrival is Sorrentino at his most Lynchian, and his most enthralling. (Source)

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.

Sorrrentino never skimps on ecclesiastical finery. Would that our own prelates would take note! (Source)

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.

Malkopope and Cardinals in The New Pope, Episode 9. Featuring (l-r) Javier Camara, Ramon Garcia, Silvio Orlando, John Malkovich. (Source)

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.

Seven Years a Catholic

Triptych of the Mystic Bath, Jehan de Bellegambe, 16th c. (Source)

Seven years ago, on the evening of March 30th, 2013, I was received into the Church at the Easter Vigil. I took St. Thomas Aquinas as my patron saint, and I was confirmed by our pastor at St. Brigid’s Church, John’s Creek, Georgia. He has since gone on to become a bishop and is now the Ordinary of Memphis. I, meanwhile, have had many ups and downs in the life of the spirit. From 2014 on I have consecrated each year to a different Holy Person. I have not always been faithful to the spirit of these consecrations. I have often been useless and even actively unhelpful in my service to God and my neighbor. I have been known to set a bad example, and I know that from time to time I have offended or scandalized others. For that, I am truly sorry.

But throughout the years, I have never lost trust in the grace of God and my hope in the Blessed Sacrament.

O Precious Blood of Jesus, source of all life and grace, have mercy on us (Source)

And it is in view of that hope that I consecrate this next year of my Catholic life to the Most Precious Blood of Jesus. I have long had a devotion to the Precious Blood, and I hope that this coming year will bring a renewed gratitude for that Blood so plenteously shed for the whole world.

Father Faber, in that marvelous book on the subject, writes,

The Precious Blood is invisible. Yet nothing in creation is half so potent. It is everywhere, practically everywhere, although it is not omnipresent. It becomes visible in the fruits of grace. It will become more visible in the splendors of glory. But it will itself be visible in Heaven in our Lord’s glorified Body as in crystalline vases of incomparable refulgence. It belongs to Him, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, although its work is the work of the whole Trinity. In its efficacy and operation it is the most complete and most wonderful of all revelations of the Divine Perfections. The power, the wisdom, the goodness, the justice, the sanctity, of God, are most pre-eminently illustrated by the working of this Precious Blood.

Fr. Faber, The Precious Blood.
Source

It seems to me somehow appropriate as well to repair unto the Precious Blood in a time of tumult and pestilence, when dead seems to be all around. Every Christian, if a Christian he truly be, is only so by the merits of the Precious Blood. It is our common inheritance as adopted Sons of God.

And what a cause of joy! Is it any wonder that some of the finest hymns praise the Precious Blood with an exuberance and a delight that anticipates what we shall feel in the Parousia? Perhaps this is one of the great attractions of the devotion, at least for me. As someone with a pessimistic temperament and a profound sense of the centrality of suffering in the Christian life, I sometimes struggle to cultivate a joyful approach to faith. But can there be anything that kindles more joy than the absolute gratuity, liberality, and efficacy of the Precious Blood in redeeming us? I wish we could all feel what Father Faber felt when he contemplated the gift of the Precious Blood, which is neither more nor less than the whole mystery of our salvation:

The Word delights eternally in His Human Blood. Its golden glow beautifies the fires of the Holy Ghost. Its ministries beget inexplicable joys in the Unbegotten Father. I was upon the seashore; and my heart filled with love it knew not why. Its happiness went out over the wide waters and upon the unfettered wind, and swelled up into the free dome of blue sky until it filled it. The dawn lighted up the faces of the ivory cliffs, which the sun and sea had been blanching for centuries of God’s unchanging love. The miles of noiseless sands seemed vast as if they were the floor of eternity. Somehow the daybreak was like eternity. The idea came over me of that feeling of acceptance, which so entrances the soul just judged and just admitted into Heaven. To be saved! I said to myself, To be saved!

Then the thoughts of all the things implied in salvation came in one thought upon me; and I said, This is the one grand joy of life; and I clapped my hands like a child, and spoke to God aloud. But then there came many thoughts all in one thought, about the nature and manner of our salvation. To be saved with such a salvation! This was a grander joy, the second grand joy of life: and I tried to say some lines of a hymn; but the words were choked in my throat. The ebb was sucking the sea down over the sand quite silently; and the cliffs were whiter, and more day like. Then there came many more thoughts all in one thought; and I stood still without intending it. To be saved by such a Saviour! This was the grandest joy of all, the third grand joy of life; and it swallowed up the other joys; and after it there could be on earth no higher joy. I said nothing; but I looked at the sinking sea as it reddened in the morning. Its great heart was throbbing in the calm; and methought I saw the Precious Blood of Jesus in Heaven, throbbing that hour with real human love of me.   

Fr. Faber, The Precious Blood.
Source

Pray for me in this coming year, dear readers. Know that I will be praying for you and commending you always to the source of all life, all joy, all love, all purity, all sanctity, all wisdom, and all grace – the Most Precious Blood of Jesus. To whom be all glory, in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and every shall be, world without end. Amen.

The Eucharistic Man of Sorrow/Mystical Vine, Anonymous, Mexican, 19th c. (Source)

On Frequent Communion

The Last Communion of St. Mary of Egypt, Marcantonio Franceschini, 1680 (Source)

One of the more shocking ecclesiastical news stories of 2019 was a survey from the Pew Research Center showing that only 28% of American Catholics know and believe the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist. The numbers look a little less grim when one breaks down the data by Mass attendance. 63% of weekly Mass-goers know and believe in the Real Presence. Yet that leaves a whopping 37% of weekly Mass attendees who do not believe in the Real Presence; the numbers are much higher for Catholics who don’t go to Mass as frequently. 75% of those who go to Mass monthly or yearly believe the bread and wine are only “symbols” of Jesus’s Body and Blood, while the number rises to 87% of Catholics who go to Mass even more rarely.

In view of this alarming data, I think we can safely say that one benefit of the present shut-down of public masses is that there will be far fewer sacrilegious communions. Possibly none, if the priests who offer private masses are doing so in a state of grace. I can only think that, in a time of international tumult, this fact, at least, is a good thing. Worthy communion is more important than frequent communion. Yet our ecclesiastical culture has, over the decades, become so fixated on frequent communion and liturgical participation as to neglect the all-important question of preparation for communion. The whole mystagogical apparatus of the early Church is against this attitude, as was the lived practice of most Christians throughout a great portion of Church history. Even St. Philip Neri, who devoutly encouraged frequent communion when this practice was rare, nevertheless made his spiritual sons at the Oratory confess to him every single day.

We have sadly now come to a point where many believe they are entitled to receive the Blessed Sacrament, simply by virtue of showing up to Mass. But this mentality vitiates our recognition of its quality as a work of supernatural grace – of something gratuitous, freely given to us by God without respect to our own merits. For what is the grace of the Blessed Sacrament, but the very life of Our Lord, Jesus Christ? It is the epitome of grace, for in the Blessed Sacrament we encounter the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Priestly Intercession of the Lord. This is why we must make a good preparation for reception of Holy Communion: in a worthy communion, that infinite Life merges with our own, and gradually assimilates us to Itself. Thus we discover the profoundly Eucharistic sense of the Apostle’s words, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

We should all take this time when we are unable to avail ourselves of the Blessed Sacrament to consider how frequently and in how many ways we outrage the Sacred and Eucharistic Heart of Jesus through sacrilegious communions, doubt in the Real Presence, and other manifold sins. This is a time for Acts of Contrition and Reparation. We must turn to God in a spirit of penance. To do so would be to transform this unhappy situation into an occasion of grace for ourselves, our neighbors, our Church, and the whole world.

The Eucharist is essential to the supernatural life, as are the sacraments more generally. Nevertheless, one worthy communion is so infinitely full of grace that we could (in theory) go a lifetime without receiving again and still gain heaven. This may seem unlikely; most souls do indeed need to receive more often than that.

But let us consider the case of St. Mary of Egypt, a saint who is venerated in a special way during the penitential season of Lent among the Eastern churches. Having lived a sinful life as a prostitute, Mary decided to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a kind of tourist. Yet when she attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to behold the True Cross, she was repeatedly held back by an invisible force. Distraught, she beheld an icon of the Mother of God. In a moment of grace, she repented of her sins with tears and trembling. The invisible barrier lifted. She was able to enter the church. The graces of that pilgrimage inspired her to go into the desert around Jordan, where she spent forty-seven years alone as a hermit. In that time, she overcame the Passions and received marvelous gifts, including an infused knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Her ascetic labor has enshrined her as one of the most powerful and beloved of the Desert Saints. Eventually, the hieromonk St. Zosima met her and heard her story, which is how it has come down to us through the ages.

St. Mary of Egypt, pray for us (Source)

Here’s the thing: in her long life, St. Mary is known to have received the Blessed Sacrament only twice. Once, when she stopped at the Church of St. John the Baptist on the Jordan River as she was just beginning her ascesis. Then again shortly before her death. As she tells Zosima in her Vita,

“Remain, Abba, in the monastery. And even if you wish to depart, you will not be to do so. And at sunset of the holy day of the Last Supper, put some of the lifegiving Body and Blood of Christ into a holy vessel worthy to hold such Mysteries for me, and bring it. And wait for me on the banks of the Jordan adjoining the inhabited parts of the land, so that I can come and partake of the lifegiving Gifts. For, since the time I communicated in the temple of the Forerunner before crossing the Jordan even to this day I have not approached the Holy Mysteries. And I thirst for them with irrepressible love and longing. and therefore I ask and implore you to grant me my wish, bring me the lifegiving Mysteries at the very hour when Our Lord made His disciples partake of His Divine Supper.”

The Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt, St. Sophronius of Jerusalem
Source.

I am quite certain that St. Mary was sustained throughout her forty-seven years in the desert by the grace of that one worthy communion. Happy are we, who are not so deprived! We can make spiritual communions, we can adore the Blessed Sacrament mentally, we can stream Mass, we can pray the Divine Office, and so much more. I genuinely believe that this time away from the Sacrament, if we dispose of it well, can remind us of the proper disposition we must bring to the altar – and which we so often lack! A keener appreciation and deeper faith in the great mystery of Holy Communion would be a salutary fruit of this crisis, and a great grace for the people of God. So, too, would a more robust and multifarious approach to Eucharistic devotion.

Let us remember that God does not abandon us. We may not be able to receive Him, but He still abides in the tabernacles of His Church. He has given us this crisis as an opportunity to purify our hearts and to restore our faith in Him. He is ever near us. He is ever willing to help us. He will not forget us or turn away from us. Let us follow that great archetype of the Christian life, St. Mary of Egypt, and return to Our Eucharist Lord only after doing proper penance for our sins during our stay in the desert. And in the meantime, let us cleave to Him as to the only rock of safety in a violent storm.

O Eucharistic Jesus, grant us the grace of loving Thee more perfectly while we must be far from Thee. Help us to cultivate a spirit of true contrition for our many sins against Thee, and grant us the grace of making worthy reparation. By the invincible, infinite, and everlasting merits of Thy Precious Blood, do Thou conquer everything base, everything impure, and everything sinful within us. And do Thou cleanse us, body, soul, and spirit, that we may enter into Thy sanctuary at the end of our days. Amen.

Mère Angélique Arnauld on Mortification, Adoration, and Providence

The great reforming Abbess of Port-Royal, Mère Angélique Arnauld (1591-1661), is chiefly remembered today for her memorable role in the early phases of the Jansenist controversy. This is somewhat unfortunate, as the reform at Port-Royal was considerable and widely admired by such eminent figures as SS Francis de Sales and Jeanne-Françoise de Chantal. Leaving aside any historical question of Mère Angélique‘s actions in the Jansenist affair, I put forth my own translation of what is, I believe, a salutary text published long after her death. I would add that a Catholic may believe that the five propositions are heretical while also believing the nuns of Port-Royal were very badly treated by the authorities of church and state. The text is excerpted from Entretiens ou conferences de la reverende mère Marie-Angelique Arnauld (1767), pg. 331-34.

Philippe de Champaigne’s iconic double portrait of (l-r) Angélique and Agnès Arnauld, sisters and Abbesses of Port-Royal. (Source)

To have a part in the inheritance of Jesus Christ, one must suffer with Him: and what suffering did He endure? He suffered pains in his body: He suffered in His goods, because He desired to be born poor, and to endure the inconveniences of poverty: in His honor, for all the world knows in what fashion He was treated. Thus, if we desire to enjoy glory with Him, it is necessary to suffer with Him and like Him. I say to you in truth, my Sisters, that whosoever does not embrace mortification, he piles up affliction on affliction, not only for the life eternal, but also for the present…

The greatest need that we have is to adore God, and the greatest fault that we commit is not to do so. If therefore we beg of God the grace to adore Him, we remedy our greatest need, and in adoring Him, we repair our greatest faults. I wish that we would be so truly in this spirit of adoration, that we would have no other thoughts than to offer all creatures and ourselves in continual sacrifice to God. This would be a holocaust that would be more agreeable than all the prayers that we know how to say. Believe me: this would be the true way to obtain all the graces that are necessary for us. It is properly that which Our Lord said unto St. Catherine of Sienna: Think of me, and I shall think of thee. Consider, I pray you, the Blessed Virgin: she knew God from the moment of her conception, and from that moment she never ceased adoring Him…She followed Him with simplicity in time: she allowed herself to marry with the same simplicity; she received the quality of Mother of God in a profound adoration of His divine grandeur: her whole life was nothing but a perfect dependence on God. At the wedding at Cana, she contents herself with representing to her Son the necessity that she sees; and after having understood His response, she says to the servants: Do whatever he tells you; as if she had desired to say: I do not know what He wants to do, but obey that which He commands of you; if he says nothing unto you, do nothing…

It seems to me that it suffices to know that God is our Father, and after that what anxieties can we have in this life? When one has a Father at once wise, rich, good, and powerful, one fears nothing: but if he comes to die, we pity these poor orphans, fearing lest a tutor dissipate all their goods; but this is what cannot happen with God. So I do not understand how it can happen that one has so much mistrust of the mercy and the providence of God; do we therefore lack faith? Many times I find myself in rather disagreeable affairs, and He has always granted me the grace of handing over the event to His divine providence. One time in particular I found myself in a situation that was entirely difficult, and that was of no small importance; it put me in a great anguish, because I could see no daylight there. A good person wrote to me that when we do not see any remedy for things according to human prudence, God knows that we don’t know. This calmed me very much, so that all my anxieties ceased, and I have always believed so firmly in the providence of God, that nothing could shake me, because I know that He guides everything.

Mère Angélique Arnauld (Source)

Bossuet on the Sufficiency of God

There are many candidates for the title of “Greatest Preacher in Christian History,” but my money’s on Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704), “The Eagle of Meaux,” Bishop and Tutor to the Grand Dauphin of France. Famed in his own day for the clarity of his doctrine, the incisive vigor of his spirituality, and the dazzling versatility of his oratorical skill, Bossuet stands as one of the late flowers of the Grand Siècle. Trumpet of the Gallicans and Hammer of Quietism, Bossuet nevertheless is not merely to be regarded as a relic of dusty seventeenth-century controversies. He still has much to teach us. In this excellent passage, excerpted from a recent translation and edited collection of his Meditations for Lent by Christopher O. Blum (Sophia Institute Press, 2013), we can see the essentially ascetic cast of Bossuet’s mind. This was the same man who, in a felicitious turn of phrase, elsewhere referred to the Rule of St. Benedict as “a little abridgment of the Gospel.” The relevant passage can be found on pages 10-12 of the source text.

Portrait of Bossuet by Charles Sevin de la Penaye, after Hyacinthe Rigaud, c. early 18th century (Source)

“Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied” (John 14:8). God alone suffices, and all we need to possess him is to see him, because in seeing him, we see all his goodness, as he himself explained to Moses: “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (Ex. 33:19). We see all that attracts our love, and we love him beyond all limits. Let us join St. Philip in saying with all our heart, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” He alone can fill all our emptiness, satisfy all our needs, content us, and make us happy.

Let us then empty our heart of all other things, for if the Father alone suffices, then we have no need for sensible goods, less for exterior wealth, and still less for the honor of men’s good opinion. We do not even need this mortal life; how then can we need those things necessary to preserve it? We need only God. He alone suffices. In possessing him we are content.

How courageous are these words of St. Philip! To say them truthfully, we must also be able to say with the apostles: “Lord, we have left everything and followed you” (cf. Matt. 19:27). At the least we must leave everything by way of affection, desire, and resolution, that is, by an invincible resolution to attach ourselves to nothing, to seek no support except in God alone. Happy are they who carry this desire to its limit, who make the final, lasting, and perfect renunciation! But let them not leave anything for themselves. Let them not say: “This little thing to which I am still attached, it is a mere nothing.” We know the nature of the human heart. Whenever a little thing is left to it, there the heart will place all its desires. Strip it all away; break from it; let it go. To own things as though one had nothing, to be married as though one were not, to make use of this world as though one were not using it, but as though it did not exist, and as though we were not a part of it: this is the true good for which we should strive. We are not Christians if we cannot say sincerely with St. Philip, “Show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.”

It is from the very depths of faith that these words are spoken, and it is in a certain sense from the very foundation of nature itself. For in the depths of our nature we sense our need to posses God, that he alone is capable of fulfilling our nature, and that we are anxious and tormented when separated from him…Man, abandoned to himself, does not know what to do, nor what to become. His pleasures carry him off, and these very same pleasures destroy him. With each sin of the senses he gives himself a killing blow, and he not only kills his soul by his intemperance, in his blindness and ignorance he kills the very body that he would flatter. Since the Fall, man is born to be unhappy…We do not know how to desire or ask for what we need.

St. Philip’s words teach us everything. He limits himself to what Jesus taught us is the one thing needful. Lord, you are the way.

Happy New Year and New Decade!

Te Deum, the chant of the New Year. (Source)

Thus concludes Anno Domini MMXIX. It is strange to think that we are about to enter the third decade of the new millennium. I am by temperament a pessimist, but I hope that this decade is an improvement over the last (a time in which I experienced a tremendous amount of personal growth). Let us pray for God’s continuing mercy and Providence.

Here are some blog stats from the last year, for those who are interested.

In 2019, The Amish Catholic received a total of 66,839 views, with a total of 39,175 visitors. My total views were down this year by 1,035, though I received 3,969 more visitors in 2019. My most popular month was March, in which I received 19,066 views and 12,919 visitors. My least popular month was February, with only 3,011 views and 1,369 visitors. This is really all very good news, since I published many fewer pieces in 2019 than in 2018 – this has been my most intense calendar year of studies ever. Including this summary, I published 42 pieces in 2019 – down from 109 in 2018. Had I been a bit more productive, all my other numbers would have gone up this year.

Here are my top 10 posts:

  1. 100 Edifying Lenten Penances (with over 12,000 views, this is my most popular post ever)
  2. 30 Alternate Religious Mottos
  3. Elsewhere: Courage, the Cardinal, and the Sex Abuse Crisis
  4. When the Sacred is Strange: The Art of Giovanni Gasparro (this one is from 2017, but it remains perennially popular)
  5. The Hidden Wound of Christ
  6. We Do Not Need St. Chesterton
  7. The Best Monastic Documentaries (from 2018)
  8. The Ratzinger Letter: A Failure
  9. Chesterton on Cheese (one of my earliest posts, from June of 2017)
  10. Elsewhere: Catholic Kabbalah

Humor keeps the top spots, while works of controversy and commentary appear with greater frequency this year than in the past. Spiritual and academic pieces usually don’t have a terribly wide appeal – which is probably good, because I’m a young layman and a lowly grad student.

I will highlight one academic piece, however, of which I am somewhat proud: my Church Life Journal argument in favor of the fundamental Catholicity of Jansenism and the continuing relevance of these early modern controversies. The Jansenist controversy remains one of the most important and misunderstood chapters in Church history. I hope to expand some of these themes here and elsewhere in the new year.

I suppose I could finish this trying to come up with a list of lessons I’ve learned over the course of the last year – in blogging, in life, etc. The temptation is even greater in view of the closing decade. Yet that often seems rather contrived. I would rather close with what seems to me the best way to end a year and a decade: on a note of gratitude. I could not have gotten where I am today without tremendous help along the way. Friends, family, mentors, and even strangers have made my life better in ways that I cannot begin to describe. Thank you to everyone who has been there along the way. You know who you are.

And thanks to the friends in heaven who have helped with their many prayers. As I concluded 2018, so will I finish the decade – with a prayer that encompasses all of time.

Glory Be to the Father, and to the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
Amen.

Elsewhere: Speaking of Jansenism

Jorgen Sonne’s 1866 Nuns walking in a cloister garden in Rome. He has, whether intentionally or not, given them the habit of Port-Royal-des-Champs. (Source)

I refer my readers to two articles that have recently appeared in the Notre Dame Church Life Journal. The first, which came out about a month ago, is an excellent piece by Dr. Shaun Blanchard showing that our polemical use of the term “Jansenism” is seriously mistaken. The second is an article I wrote, a church-historical study in which I both defend the Jansenists from various degrading misconceptions as well as point out some parallels between their situation and our own. I’m also very pleased that the Catholic Herald picked it up for Wednesday’s “Morning Catholic Must-Reads.”

This is not the first time I have tackled the issue, having previously pointed out the rhetorical and ecclesiastical-political resemblances between Pope Francis’s critics and the French Jansenists. I am more sure than ever of that similarity, and may yet elaborate it again should I deem it helpful for the present conversation. Regardless, I certainly will write more about Jansenist history and theology – watch this space.

I should add that I am particularly grateful to Dr. Blanchard for his kind aid in the preparation of my piece, and Dr. Artur Rosman for his editorial patience.

Elsewhere: Keanu Heydari on the Coredemptrix

August is the Month of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. While I was too busy moving and adapting to life in Pennsylvania to write anything for Assumption Day, my good friend Keanu Heydari wrote a beautiful meditation on the meaning of the Assumption as well as on Our Lady’s co-redemptive role more generally. I offer it to my readers for their edification and delight as well as for the honor of Our Lady’s Sorrow and Immaculate Heart. Here’s a particularly puissant excerpt:

In this remarkable passage, as the Venerable Fulton Sheen has argued, John’s Jesus invokes the archetypical womanhood of Mary as the New Eve. Mary is the woman. Jesus affirms her role in undoing our devastated humanity in the Garden by affirming her role as the New Eve. Moreover, the Lord makes a startling claim about the dignity of Mary’s personhood and her role in the narrative arc of cosmic salvation as Coredemptrix and Mediatrix. What is true about Christ is also just as true of the Virgin. Only Mary could confess that she, in the purest way, was truly of the flesh of the Son of Man. 

Keanu Heydari

Keanu hits upon a fundamental truth of Catholicism, the Marian-Ecclesial analogy with Christ. What is predicated of Christ can be predicated of both the Church, His Bride, and, in a special way, His Mother. This is not to suggest that anyone other than Jesus Christ as a discreet person is the Logos, but to note that all that He is by nature, we can become by Grace – and Mary first of all.

Elsewhere: Catholic Kabbalah

Portrait of Giles of Viterbo in his old Palazzo (Source)

Over at Church Life Journal, Andrew Kuiper has a tour-de-force article on the history and theology of Catholic Kabbalah. His review of four Catholic Kabbalists – Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin, Giles of Viterbo, and St. John Fisher – is a model of intellectual history. He does a great job showing the continuing relevance of Kabbalah for Catholic (and other Christian) thinkers throughout the centuries.

The piece is amply cited and provides several helpful theological considerations. I thought Kuiper’s nod towards Sophiology was particularly enlightening. If Christian Kabbalah has a place in Catholic theology today, I predict that it will be in the writings of latter-day Sophiologists.

If I were to offer a criticism of Kuiper’s piece, it would be a very minor one at that: he makes no reference to the works of Margaret Barker. Her research has shed a new light on the roots of Christianity and Jewish mysticism (in both its Merkabah and later Sephirotic developments) in the memory of the First Temple. Reading Kabbalistic texts through a Temple lens can ease their Christian interpretation. But I digress.

Pico della Mirandola, a pioneer in the Christian use of Kabbalah. (Source)

Perhaps the most exciting part of the article, for a historian of the period, is Kuiper’s various references to the Kabbalistic books written by these Christians of the 15th and 16th centuries. I would particularly keen on finding the text of Giles of Viterbo’s Shechina or Pico’s Heptaplus. Some of these hard-to-find volumes have never been translated into English.

It is not easy to summarize the teachings of the Jewish mystics, nor their Christian interpreters. Kuiper does both with commendable attention to detail and obvious competence, all while keeping things clear and concise enough for a lay reader. This article also provides a badly-needed defense of the respectability of Kabbalah as a field of study. Its bastardization in recent times, exemplified most clearly by Madonna et al., has led some to question whether Kabbalah is anything more than a gnostic mishmash of magic with Hebrew letters. I have heard colleagues dismiss it entirely as a field of serious inquiry for a historian or theologian. This tendency seems especially strong with Christian academics, many of whom retain outdated ideas about Jewish mysticism or who simply haven’t up with the post-Scholem rediscovery of Kabbalah. Kuiper’s intervention is a broadside against this boring complacency. It’s not exactly “a cruel angel’s thesis,” but it is one worth defending.

Reflections on Leaving Oxford

Sweet dreams are made of this… (Source)

I have, by the merciful grace of God, passed my M.Phil in Theology at Oxford. I could not have done so without the abundant help of my supervisors and tutors, principally Dr. Sarah Apetrei, as well as the many friends and family who supported me throughout the course of my studies there. Latterly this endeavor has caused me to neglect my blogging, for which I must beg pardon of my readers. Editing, submissions, an examination, travelling, and the arduous business of moving back across the Atlantic has distracted me. So has the bittersweet task of saying goodbye to so many friends, men and women I will miss in the years to come.

Oxford is most beautiful in the Spring. Photo taken by author.

I can understand why our soon-to-be-Saint Newman had so much trouble getting Oxford out of his blood. The place is a mirage in silver and stone. To have dwelt in such a dream-city for so long a time, to have been part of its inner life, to have shaped it according to one’s own character and to be shaped by it in turn, to watch the sun and the rain succeed in their seasons over streets imbued everywhere with a boundless sense of eternity…yes, I can see why Newman was always looking for a path back to this northern Eden. A Papal angel kept him from the gate. More prosaic barriers have turned me aside, namely, the prospects of an academic career in America.

But, in some way, the greater grief is leaving the United Kingdom. Shakespeare called Albion a swan’s nest in a stream. Having traveled from London to Birmingham, from Cardiff to York, from Tenby to Bournemouth, from Cambridge to Edinburgh, from Bath to Stratford, from Walsingham to Wakefield, in short, across the whole face of this country, I can start to see what he means. Britain possesses a peculiar beauty in grey-green and gold, something delicate and immortal that only reveals itself to an attentive foreigner. I shall miss it.

The St. Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral. Photo taken by author.

More than that, I’ll miss the many friends I made in my two years abroad. Not just English either, though there were plenty of those – but also Canadians, Russians, Australians, Irish (both orange and green), French, Armenians, Italians, Romanians, Scots, Sri Lankans, Welsh, Poles, Chinese, and even some of my fellow countrymen. The story of my time in Oxford would not be complete without them. I will feel the absence of each, some more keenly than others.

St. Stephen’s House in the snow, January 2019. Photo taken by author.

I suppose this is as good a time as ever to take stock of some of my travels through life at large. I am 24 years old. I have visited 12 countries beyond the borders of the United States:

The United Kingdom
France
Ireland
Belgium
The Netherlands
Italy
Austria
The Czech Republic
Hungary
Romania
Bermuda
Vatican City

And 14 if one includes layovers and train connections in Germany and Switzerland. I have stood at the banks of the following rivers:

The Thames in London
The Thames in Oxford (Isis)
The Thame in Dorchester (before it becomes the Thames)
The Cherwell
The Liffey
The Seine
The Amstel
The Arno
The Rhône
The Saône
The Tiber
The Danube
The Lys
The Usk
The Avon in Bath
The Loire
The Cam

I have spent quite a lot of time in churches. A few favorites in England include the Oxford Oratory, the York Oratory, the Birmingham Oratory, Magdalen College Chapel, Worcester College Chapel, Oriel College Chapel, Merton College Chapel, St. Stephen’s House Chapel, St. Etheldreda’s, Holborn, and the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. My single favorite church in England remains the Brompton Oratory, as it has been since that first June day I stepped into its vast and holy darkness, four years ago.

A favorite country church – St. Swithun’s, Compton Beauchamp. Full of delightfully ironic Georgian monuments and a complete refurbishment by Martin Travers in the 1930s. The setting is beautiful, too. (Source)

I have so far managed to get to the following Cathedrals (and Abbeys) in England, of which the first two are my favourites:

Winchester Cathedral
Gloucester Cathedral
Norwich Cathedral
Oxford Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral
York Minster
Wakefield Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral
St. Giles’s, Edinburgh
Westminster Cathedral
Westminster Abbey
Bath Abbey
Malmesbury Abbey

Plus some lovely country churches – East Coker, Burford, Stow-on-the-Wold, Binsey, and my very favorite, St. Swithun’s, Compton Beauchamp.

In Ireland, Silverstream Priory remains the most spiritually nourishing place I have ever been; its beauty and its holiness are always palpable.

The Ghent Altarpiece. Seeing this for the first time last February in Saint Bavo’s Cathedral was one of the best moments of my two years abroad. (Source)

My travels on the Continent have been full of their own various ecclesiastical delights, so I’ll only mention a few highlights. My favorite cathedral in the world is St. Bavo’s, Ghent, which represents the perfect fusion of Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, and 19th Century styles. In France, the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal in the Rue du Bac, Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Lyon Cathedral, Notre-Dame de Fourvière, and Saint-Just in Lyon are a few holy places I will not easily forget. Recently, I visited De Krijtberg in Amsterdam, which is the best example of painted Neo-Gothic I have seen beyond the Sainte-Chapelle. Italy is too full of wonderful churches to count, as are the old Hapsburg lands. If I were to choose a favorite in each, I suppose I would have to list the Chiesa Nuova (St. Philip Neri’s home and final resting place) in Italy, as well as Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria, the Matthias Church in Hungary, and St. Vitus Cathedral in the Czech Republic. Though, to be fair, I visited several of these a few years ago rather than on this late sojourn in Europe.

The cloisters, Gloucester Cathedral. America’s greatest fault probably lies in having no Medieval structures in situ. Photo taken by author.

I list these travels not out of any boasting, and, perhaps, not even for my readers. If anything, I do it for myself. I am more interested in remembering these places; writing about them has given me occasion to reminisce, to try and recapture something of the pleasure they gave me once.

I have been very blessed in life. I praise the Good Lord for allowing me the chance to see a bit of the world, to have done useful work, to have read interesting books, to have seen beautiful things, to have drank some good wine, and to have known such wonderful people. What more can one ask for in this brief life?