The Funerary Rites of James II

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Frontispiece of the Sacra Exequialia. Note the skeletons at the base of the candelabra and baldachin columns. (Source)

A forgotten Latin text of 1702, the Sacra Exequialia in Funere Jacobi II, provides some wonderful views of early modern Catholic funerary rites. Or at least, as those rites were employed for dead monarchs. The central text is Cardinal Barberini’s funeral oration for the king at Rome. Fun fact: if you Google “Exequialia,” it’s the first and one of the only results. While it may not be a hapax legomenon, it’s the sort of rare word that makes epeolaters and logophiles drool.

At any rate, I’m not writing this post because of Barberini’s text. The book’s more delicious feature is its several illustrations, including the wild Baroque decoration of the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina as well as several emblems.

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The decorations of San Lorenzo in Lucina for the occasion. (Source)

Of course, James II died in Paris and buried in the English Benedictine church there. It is a testament to the respect he was held in by the Papal court that a Cardinal of such standing as Carlo Barberini, Archpriest of the Vatican Basilica, should preach an oration for him in Rome.

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One of the marvellous emblems in the text. Note the Ouroboros. (Source)

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An image of London. There are similar views of Paris and Rome. All were at hung at the high altar behind the catafalque and its baldachin. (Source)

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Another moral emblem. I’m particularly fond of this one as the harp recalls not only the exile in Babylon (and thus the Jacobite exile) but also the valiant Irish defense of James’s claim to the throne in 1689. These also would have adorned the walls of the church alongside the King’s arms. (Source)

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A closer view of the skeletal flambeaux. One can never have too many at a funeral. (Source)

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Jacobite emblem accompanying the text of the Oration. (Source)

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A closer view of the frontispiece. Note the Pope flying over the catafalque. (Source)

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Here you can see the spooky scary skeletons all around the room. (Source)

 

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Prosaic Relics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Newman and Divine Providence

Bl. John Henry Newman, Doctor of Conscience and Doctor of Tradition, remains one of my dear friends in Heaven. Some of his prayers and devotions are as puissant today as they were when they were first composed. I am consoled by and draw courage from this extended passage of the Meditations and Devotions:

I have always thought this portrait captures the humanity and essential kindness of Cardinal Newman. (Source)

GOD has created all things for good; all things for their greatest good; everything for its own good. What is the good of one is not the good of another; what makes one man happy would make another unhappy. God has determined, unless I interfere with His plan, that I should reach that which will be my greatest happiness. He looks on me individually, He calls me by my name, He knows what I can do, what I can best be, what is my greatest happiness, and He means to give it me.

God knows what is my greatest happiness, but I do not. There is no rule about what is happy and good; what suits one would not suit another. And the ways by which perfection is reached vary very much; the medicines necessary for our souls are very different from each other. Thus God leads us by strange ways; we know He wills our happiness, but we neither know what our happiness is, nor the way. We are blind; left to ourselves we should take the wrong way; we must leave it to Him.

Let us put ourselves into His hands, and not be startled though He leads us by a strange way, a mirabilis via, as the Church speaks. Let us be sure He will lead us right, that He will bring us to that which is, not indeed what we think best, nor what is best for another, but what is best for us.

O, my God, I will put myself without reserve into Thy hands. Wealth or woe, joy or sorrow, friends or bereavement, honour or humiliation, good report or ill report, comfort or discomfort, Thy presence or the hiding of Thy countenance, all is good if it comes from Thee. Thou art wisdom and Thou art love—what can I desire more? Thou hast led me in Thy counsel, and with glory hast Thou received me. What have I in heaven, and apart from Thee what want I upon earth? My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the God of my heart, and my portion for ever.

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.

Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about.

O Adonai, O Ruler of Israel, Thou that guidest Joseph like a flock, O Emmanuel, O Sapientia, I give myself to Thee. I trust Thee wholly. Thou art wiser than I—more loving to me than I myself. Deign to fulfil Thy high purposes in me whatever they be—work in and through me. I am born to serve Thee, to be Thine, to be Thy instrument. Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see—I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.

(Meditations and Devotions “Hope in God – Creator”)

The Horses of St. Bruno

Today is the Feast of St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusians. While many know of the Carthusians for their famous silence, their holy way of life preserved from corruption down the centuries, and that wonderful green liqueur they make, few are aware of another gift they have given the world: a breed of Andalusian horse known as the Cartujano.

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Monks with their horse. (Source)

The breed emerged as early as the 1400’s, and had become an important strain of the Spanish equine population by the early modern period. They originated at the Charterhouse of Jerez. The story of their arrival at the monastery is a little uncertain, but one plausible theory holds that:

“Don Pedro Picado, was unable to pay his ground rent to the monks…decided to pay them…in kind by offering them his mares and colts. These animals had been bought…from the brothers Andrés and Diego Zamora…who formed this small stud farm from a stallion bought from a soldier, and one of its sons, a colt of extraordinary beauty and grace, called ‘Esclavo.'”

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A Cartujano today. (Source)

At any rate, the monks commenced a breeding program that lasted for hundreds of years – they only lost their monopoly on the line at the French invasion. The end result was what one source has called “the purest of Spanish horses.” Take a look at the numbers:

The Carthusian horse, or Cartujano is not a distinct breed of horse but rather an offshoot of the pure Spanish horse and is considered the purest strain remaining with one of the oldest stud books in the world. Roughly 82% of the Pura Raza Espanola (PRE) population in Spain contains Cartujano blood. But there are less than 3% pure Cartujano horses within the PRE population and only 500 pure Cartujanos in existence in Spain today.

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“The Cartujanos,” Jose Manuel Gomez. (Source)

Virtually all Cartujanos today are descended from that first horse at Jerez, that Jacob of horses – “Esclavo.” You can see one in action here.

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Monks and their horse. (Source)

We need not justify the monastic life on terms other than its own final good – that is, union with God. Or even its secondary good – prayer for the world. But if one is seeking “useful” or “worldly” benefits of monasticism, look no further than the Cartujano horse. The continuity provided by the monastic state over centuries allowed proper record keeping and a meticulous attention to the intricacies of a sustained lineage. These beautiful creatures are one testament to the salutary work of monks in history.

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I’m sure there’s a spiritual metaphor here. (Source)

 

“They Shall Not Bind Thy Wounds With Oil and Wine”

Occasionally I like to present obscure poetry here, especially by unusual figures. My readers will no doubt be well aware of my love of the bizarre and morbid. Here are two extremely rare poems from that equally strange poet, Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock, an Anglo-Baltic aristocrat who dabbled in just about every religion known to man, kept a menagerie of wild animals at his Estonian palace, and carried a doll he called “le Petit Comte” that he always insisted was his son.

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Count Stenbock. A more like Huysmans’s Des Esseintes has never walked the earth. (Source)

Original collections of his Decadent verse fetch tens of thousands on the open market. I was privileged enough to view two of them at the Bodleian last year, my source for these two poems. The first dates from 1893, the second from 1883. I chose these two from several others because of the rather striking thematic contrast they afford.

Sonnet VI

O vos ómnes qui transítis per víam, atténdite et vidéte: Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus.”

All suffer, but thou shalt suffer inordinately.
All weep, but thy tears shall be tears of blood.
I will destroy the blossom in the blood,
Nathless, I will not slay thee utterly
Nay, thou shalt live—I will implant in thee
Strange lusts and dark desires, lest any should,
In passing, look on thee in piteous mood,
For from the first I have my mark on thee.

So shalt thou suffer without sympathy,
And should’st thou stand within the street and say:
“Look on me, ye that wander by the way,
If there be any sorrow like to mine.”
They shall not bind thy wounds with oil and wine,
But with strange eyes downcast, shall turn from thee.

Sonnet I – Composed in St. Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg

On waves of music borne it seems to float
So tender sweet, so fraught with inner pain,
And far too exquisite to hear again
Above the quivering clouds that single note,
The tremendous fires of the lamp-light gloat
On the exceeding sweetness of that strain—
Though mightest spend a lifetime all in vain
In striving to recall it, yet recall it not.

Therein are mingled mercy, pity, peace,
Tears wiped away and sorrow comforted,
Bearing sweet solace and a short relief
To those, that are acquainted well with grief,
Reviving for a time joys long since dead,
And granting to the fettered soul release.

Elsewhere: Keanu Heydari on Conversion

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Fridolin Assists with the Holy Mass, Peter Fendi. (Source)

Earlier this month, my friend Keanu Heydari penned what is, I think, a very good essay about his own conversion and about conversion in general. I thought these two paragraphs were especially poignant:

If Jesus is the slain Lamb of God, the content of reconciliation is substantial rather than conceptual, or even primarily juridical. Forgiveness is freely given by God, but rather than bestowed, it is—like a substance—dealt with. It is held, beheld, and shared. I am speaking, of course, of understanding reconciliation as a sacramental event rather than as (primarily) juridical proclamation. The removal of our guilt is a free gift of the gracious God, yet it is not as a word, spoken in a booming voice. It is the material, densely textured experience of Jesus Christ, the Word, the Lamb of God, as he dies on Calvary, by the Church community, in the reception of the sacraments, wherein we receive God. The Psalmist implores, “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps. 34:8, RSV2CE). We taste and see, we behold, the forgiveness of God.

But pictures say more than words ever can. The Catholic artistic paradigm overflows with meaning. It is effusive, dynamic, and embodied. It is densely textured, thickly self-describing, multi-dimensional, and frankly excessive. But it is precisely in these Rabelaisian excesses that Catholic aesthetics gesture, even more powerfully, towards the ineffable, over and above the words themselves that are used in the liturgy. Sacramentally, we can truly say “Ecce homo.” Artistically, we are reminded that things are really happening outside of us, that we aren’t automata aimlessly generating profit for managers and selling our productivity to survive. We are more than the sum of our extrinsically imposed reductive component parts. The liturgy revels in its (in Cartesian terms) obscene uselessness. The defiance of the mass is its strongest selling point, as it were.

Read the whole thing. In what is proving to be an extraordinarily dark time for the Church, Keanu’s essay brings a good deal of hope in the fundamental promise of salvation.

A Carmelite Daughter of St. Philip: The Venerable Serafina di Dio, O.C.D.

One of my favorite essays to write on this blog so far has been my study of the way that St. Philip Neri embodied certain Benedictine qualities. In that piece, I argue that sometimes we can gain a deeper understanding of a saint by looking at their likenesses with saints of a different religious family or by the influence of other saints in their lives. As an extension of that essay, I’d like to introduce my readers to a Venerable whom they have probably never heard of, one who followed St. Philip in a very Benedictine spirit: the Venerable Serafina di Dio, O.C.D.

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Ven. Serafina di Dio (1621-1699), Neapolitan Carmelite mystic. (Source)

The Life of a Mystic

Prudenza Pisa was born in the Kingdom of Naples in 1621. She clashed with her father at a young age when she refused to marry the young man he had chosen as her husband. She also cut her hair and donned pentiental garb. These actions did not go over well, and she soon found herself expelled from the household. Prudenza resided during this rather fraught period in what was essentially the family chicken coop. Yet she grew closer to her mother, who brought her meals secretly. Prudenza saw these sufferings as an opportunity for growth in trust of God. She also set herself to the good works of visiting the sick. In the Neapolitan Plagues of 1656, she continued her ministry even as the illness claimed her beloved mother. Her behavior at this terrible juncture was edifying:

Seraphina prepared her mother for death and actually closed her eyes when she died on August 5th 1656. Christian burial was not allowed during the plague. With her own hands, she dug a shallow grave in the backyard and personally buried her mother.

Yet her active life was soon to draw to a close. One of her uncles, a prominent priest, died of the same plague. He had been planning to found a convent of enclosed nuns on Capri. She carried on this noble work after his departure. She gathered together various companions from Naples and, on 29th of May, 1661, took the habit of the Discalced Carmelites at Naples Cathedral. It was then that she took the name of Serafina of God. Later that year, the community moved to Capri. Their residence soon proved inadequate, and they constructed a much larger monastery dedicated to the Most Holy Savior. Mother Serafina’s leadership bore fruit in another six Carmelite convents in the Kingdom of Naples, a remarkable flourishing clearly drawing its power from the Holy Ghost.

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The (very Dominican) arms of Pope Benedict XIII, friend of Ven. Serafina di Dio (Source)

Ven. Serafina was not without trials. Although she wrote an attack on Quietism, she was herself accused of this noxious heresy. For six years, the Inquisition conducted an investigation into her writings and activities. For two, she was confined to her cell without the benefit of Holy Communion. But at last, her name was cleared, in no small part because of the intervention of her friend, Archbishop Vincenzo Maria Orsini, the future Pope Benedict XIII.

There can be little doubt that these troubles arose from within her own religious family. Although Mother Serafina was entirely blameless in conduct, her manner of spiritual leadership won her many enemies among her more lax daughters. Perhaps some of the trouble could have been anticipated from the fact that her recruits were customarily drawn from the ranks of the Neapolitan aristocracy, not a class generally known for its ascetic rigor. The Carmelites treated their foundress poorly. For example, while Serafina was ill in her confinement, she begged to see some of the sisters. They did not come. Yet the patience with which she bore these final trials remains exemplary. As one biographer notes, “Two days before she died she asked the Prioress to look after the sisters who had been so contrary to her, making excuses for their behavior.” This mercy converted the hard of heart, for, as the same writer says, “After her death on March 17, 1699, some of the sisters who were most against her became some of the most enthustiastic promoters of her Cause.”

Spiritual Daughter of St. Philip Neri

An heir of the Tridentine reform, the Ven. Serafina was a great admirer of St. Teresa of Avila, whom she endeavored to emulate in all things. She was a prolific writer, composing at least 2,173 letters and enough theological writing to fill 22 books. Some of her topics included:

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Ven. Serafina writing (Source).

-the prayer of faith
-mental prayer
-the love of God and the practice of the divine presence
-the common life
-conformity to the will of God.

Alas, I don’t believe any of these have been translated into English. Perhaps some intrepid early modernist will someday render these works into the Anglo-Saxon tongue.

Serafina was also a visionary mystic. She went about life with a constant ability to fall into meditation. In Serafina’s own words:

“…Anything I looked at I was able to turn into a meditation… When I saw it raining, I thought of the refreshment which the rain brought to the earth and that without it the earth would be arid. I would say: ‘If the water of divine grace did not fall on the soul, it would dry up without providing the fruits of good works.’ … The sight of fish swimming in the sea made me remember how the saints are immersed in God… And in such wise everything, even the slightest things, served me for my spiritual nourishment.”

The greatest misfortunes could not turn her from the praise of God. For in all things, she perceived the benevolent Providence of God. Her unfailing rule was that “All that God did and allowed was beautiful, good, ordered for our good.” Even the terrible things in life thus became for Serafina an occasion of magnification and blessing.

Serafina was also a visionary mystic. At one point, “She was so overwhelmed with her vision of the Godhead that she wondered what else could be reserved for her in heaven.” The experiences she was granted were extraordinary, though she took pains to keep them discreet. Yet we do have letters attesting to some of her ecstasies.

One figure who emerges as particularly important in her religious life is St. Philip Neri. The Oratorian Fr. Francesco Antonio Agnelli tells us that she honored St. Philip by, for instance, devoutly kissing the feet of the crucifix thirty-three times in his honor; she was repaid for this act of love with a vision of the glorified St. Philip prostrate and kissing the feet of Jesus thirty-three times in her name (Agnelli 194).

Serafina’s spiritual father was Fr. Vincenzo Avinatri of the Naples Oratory. She wrote him letters describing the visions she had of St. Philip. In one such letter, she reports that

“I saw the Saint, with the great Mother of God, in a flame of fire, and surrounded with light…with a sweet countenance, he told me many beautiful things…He showed me what his sons ought to be, and the dignity of the Congregation, made, so to speak, in the likeness of God and of the three Divine Persons, and especially of the Person of the Holy Spirit…Without speaking, he had explained to me the perfection we must have in order to be sons of light. It would be a monstrous thing if fire generated snow, if light brought forth darkness, if crystal produced mud…How much greater wonder would it be, if in any of the sons of St. Philip, who are called sons of the Holy Spirit, there should be any defect!” (qtd. in Agnelli 195-96)

In another vision that came to her on the vigil of St. Philip’s day, she was carried way into a heavenly rapture and saw the Saint aflame with a supernal light. And in view of St. Philip, she saw her own heart on fire, as well. But it did not glow as brightly as his; therefore, she prayed to the Saint that she might receive a more perfect and ample share of Divine Love. As Agnelli describes it,

Then the Saint united his heart with hers, and thus united they sent forth a great flame; she felt so much love that she could not express it, and the Saint invited her to rejoice in the presence of the Lord, and to sing His praises, desiring her to repeat with him these words, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Magnus Dominus et laudabilis nimis [Holy, holy, holy, great is the Lord and worthy of all praise], adding that it is impossible to find in the most devout Canticles words more pleasing to God. (Agnelli 194-95).

She was thus adopted by the saint as a kind of daughter in the Spirit. She also looked upon Oratorians as her own sons. This spiritual affinity was later attested by a physical resemblance with St. Philip. When an autopsy was conducted on Mother Serafina’s body, the examiners found signs of transverberation in her heart.

It may seem odd for a visionary to become so friendly with St. Philip and his sons. After all, St. Philip himself was notorious for his skepticism when it came to visions. He had treated the Ven. Ursula Benincasa with unrelenting verbal abuse to test her inspiration – a test she passed, even if the holy man never quite came around to endorsing her. St. Philip taught that, “As for those who run after visions, dreams, and the like, we must lay hold of them by the feet and pull them to the ground by force, lest they should fall into the devil’s net.” Though a man of tremendous supernatural gifts himself, he knew that the spiritual world was a minefield of dangers. False visionaries abounded in his day, and his prudent words have retained their perennial wisdom down into our own era.

To properly understand the nature of Ven. Serafina’s visionary mysticism, and why we can properly say it breathes of a Philippine spirit, we must look at it in the context of her leadership of a Carmelite monastery.

A Liturgical Mysticism

The troubles in Serafina’s life began because of her governance. As one biographer has it,

As often happens, Sr. Seraphina’s strongest talents and graces became her heaviest crosses. In her foundations she shared her convictions about religious life with her sisters. She firmly believed that the best guarantee of authenticity of one’s religious experience was a dogged faithfulness to the traditional forms. She was immersed in the church’s liturgy, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Divine Office, the liturgical year, and the feasts of the Saints. She was often led to intimate communion with Christ Jesus at the liturgy beginning with the midnight office. She also stressed the need for silence and solitude as requisites for prayer. [emphasis mine – RTY]

Her tenacious devotion to the traditional forms of worship and to the great prayer of the Church, the Liturgy and Divine Office, shows that the Ven. Serafina was in every way a monastic. Indeed, these salutary measures evince a Benedictine sensibility.

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An 18th century portrait of the Ven. Serafina di Dio. Note the prominent place of the Blessed Sacrament in this composition. (Source)

Her ecstasies were not a superfluous and shallow add-on to this liturgical life. She built the house of her prayer upon the rock of tradition, and it was illumined with the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost.

Serafina’s mystical life was tied to her experience of the liturgical calendar. For instance, any of her most profound encounters with St. Philip took place on the vigil and day of his feast (Agnelli 194-95). A cynic would see in this timebound quality a mark of the merely human dimension of religion, a fine example of confirmation bias. But those who have learned of divine things will discover a deeper reality. In Serafina they will see a soul that has grown attuned to the Wisdom of God, made manifest in time through the Incarnation of Christ and the Liturgy of the Church.

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High Altar of the Chiesa Santissimo Salvatore, Capri. Although it has not been a Carmelite monastery since Napoleonic times, this is the altar where the Ven. Serafina would have received communion. (Source)

These are quintessentially sound foundations for the spiritual life. Her strictly liturgical and monastic way engendered serious opposition among her daughters, but it also gave her the strength to bear that opposition with true Christian patience. One can only imagine the terrible suffering that two years without the Blessed Sacrament must have inflicted on such a soul. Yet, by grounding herself in the Liturgy, she was able to nourish that innate trust in Providence already evident in her earliest days. Surely, that sustained her in the darkest days of her old age.

The Long Road to Sainthood

It seems somehow appropriate that, as an adopted daughter of St. Philip, the Ven. Serafina should not yet have been canonized. Many of his spiritual children have had a similar fate. Witness the stalled cases of Ven. Cardinal Cesare Baronius, Bl. Juvenal Ancina, Bl. Anthony Grassi, and Bl. Sebastian Valfre, just to name a few of the many early modern Oratorians who have not yet reached the highest altars of the Church.

Still, we can pray that this Carmelite mystic will one day be recognized as the saint she was. Let us beg her intercession and emulate her profound devotion to the Liturgy of the Church.

UPDATE: A Carmelite friend pointed out to me that Ven. Serafina was in fact not subject to the jurisdiction of either Carmelite order, essentially running independent Carmelite conservatories of oblates in the Discalced habit, following an adaptation of St. Teresa’s constitutions. She was a sort of Carmelite version of St. Francesca Romana. More info can be found in the works of Smet. As such, any use of the Carmelite letters after her name may be inappropriate, but given a) the unusual nature of the case, and b) the difficulty of changing my title and thus invalidating links, I have decided to keep my text as is and merely add this disclaimer.

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May the Ven. Serafina di Dio pray for us! (Source)

Flannery O’Connor and the Protestant Ex Voto Tradition

Recently I came across a very strange song from an equally bizarre album. The song was “I’m Not Handicapped, Just Inconvenienced,” by Gary Dee Bradford. It was on his 1979 album of the same title. The piece is a chilling mix of bad ventriloquism, preachy Carter-era Evangelicalism, and awkwardly poor singing. Which means, of course, that I loved it.

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I’m curious what’s on the full album. (Source)

I soon found out that Bradford, who suffers from a rare physical disability called phocomelia (he lacks arms and has hands at his shoulders), produced a few other albums. Although he produced his most recent work in 2002, most of his output came in the 1970’s and 80’s. In one of the only other songs by Bradford I can find online, 1977’s “Good Ole Gospel Music,” we can hear the prepubescent Bradford sing in a high and eerie voice about the superiority of his chosen genre:

It is the sweetest love song
Ever heard by mortal man.
If we had more Gospel Music
We’d have a better land…a better land!

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Gotta love that 70’s montage work. (Source)

It’s catchy, I have to admit. Even if it’s not exactly Mozart.

It would be easy to make fun of the sheer cheesiness of Bradford’s records and write them off as one more episode in the history of odd music. But in fact, Bradford’s albums deserve more respect than that. They tell us something about the history and spirituality of mid-20th century American Christianity. Bradford wasn’t working in a vacuum.

American Gospel music, particularly that brand of Gospel that flourished in the predominately white churches of the mid-century South, has roots in the musical traditions of Appalachia. One of the most common and longstanding song forms found there is the ballad. Appalachian ballads often tell stories of woe and redemption, sadness and hope. When given a religious inflection, they become the musical versions of faith-sharing, testifying to the work of God in redeeming poor sinners. They are also the Protestant equivalents of the Catholic world’s longstanding folk ex voto tradition.

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An example of a Mexican ex voto, 1853. (Source)

The ex voto is a little painted image offered by a devotee in thanksgiving to Christ, the Virgin, or a saint for a perceived blessing. Usually, the scene of the miracle is depicted in fairly simple (or what the art critics would call “naive”) terms, with a short, handwritten narrative describing the incident below. They are emphatically not “fine art.” Ex votos are the result of folk piety, and they depict the most fundamental relationship of the worshiper and the supernatural, the body and the invisible world, faith and crisis.

There’s also a uniquely New-World flavor to the ex voto form. While examples abound from most historically Catholic cultures, the most exemplary tradition of ex votos can be found in Mexico. Indeed, the ex voto has become one of the country’s national art forms, often stylized and reinterpreted by contemporary artists. Frida Kahlo even collected them.

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An ex-voto of a woman stabbed in bed, owned by Frida Kahlo and believed to have inspired her own painting, “A Few Small Nips.” (Source)

We can see the same kinds of spiritual impulses behind a whole wave of calamity-themed songs in mid-to-late-20th century Gospel. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, in a Protestant context, the ex voto takes an audible rather than visual form. Take, for example, Jerry D. Brown’s A Crippled Boy’s Prayer and The Fuller Family’s slightly earlier but almost identical A Little Crippled Girl’s Prayer.

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Not a great song, but it makes sense as a sort of ex voto. (Source)

Sometimes, the album as a physical object mirrors the makeup of an ex voto. The back of the albums often carry long messages of praise and thanksgiving in spite of the various afflictions the artists suffer from. For example, on the back of A Little Crippled Girl’s Prayer, we read the words of wheelchair-bound Marsha Fuller:

It’s so great to be a Christian and serving such a great God. He has given so much to me, for most children with my disease lead a quiet life and never have the opportunities that I have had.  At the age of three He gave me a voice to sing with. And three years later God inspired me to write two songs. Since then, I have written four other songs and made two recordings. He has also blessed me in other ways. He gave me a wonderful Mom and Dad whom have loved and cared for me so much. He gave me a wonderful brother, Gene. You don’t find too many twenty-year-old men who loves to sing for the Lord the ways he does. As a family we have had rough times together. Sometimes we didn’t know where the next meal was going to come from because of hospital bills, but, God has always pulled us through. Our house might not be the biggest and our clothes might not be the finest, but as long as we stay true to Jesus someday we’ll have a mansion that outshines the sun. We truly hope that you will be blessed by our message in song to you. Yours in Christ, Marsha Fuller

There was a veritable cottage industry of Christian albums by blind, amputee, or otherwise disabled artists that flourished in the middle of the twentieth century. To give a few examples:

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Denise’s Closer to the Savior, probably from the 1960’s or 1970’s. (Source)

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Another blind album, It’s Me Again, Lord by Judy & Barbara, the Blind Slye Twins (Source)

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Benny Dean’s I’d Rather Be Blind (In My Eyes Than In My Soul). A bit on the nose. (Source)

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Here’s Something Special from Jeff Steinberg. Note the hook. (Source)

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“Truly a Miracle of God!” (Source)

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Richard & Gail Miller Sing the Gospel of Love. (Source)

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Sandra Kay Hyler in “Through Prayer I Found An Answer.” (Source)

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Another offering from “Little Richard Miller,” this time with cover art that closely if unintentionally replicates the ex voto model. The full album is online for your listening pleasure. (Source)

These musical works differ from the mainstream of Protestant aural culture in that, even when the songs themselves are classic hymns or are just covers of more obscure songs by disabled artists, they take on a new, personal, and highly-charged meaning in the context of public disability. The artists are not just performing music, they are performing both disability and Christianity – indeed, they perform their disability precisely as the core of their Christianity, and their Christianity as intimately bound up with their disability. The singer born without arms or the blind crooner or the organist missing her hands can all achieve a new status as an icon of model Christian disability. Their performance points towards the hope of a transfiguration that surpasses disability in the kingdom of heaven. Moreover, their physical or mental incapacity is often an implicit analogy for the spiritual deformation, blindness, or weakness found in the more conventional Gospel ballad. The healing of both comes from Jesus.

Mary Douglas, among other anthropologists, has noted that the body physical is often used as an analogy of the body politic. The symbolic representation of the individual corpus speaks to the social body at large – culturally-coded anxieties about the limits of the physical body frequently point to an underlying anxiety about threats to the community. Should it surprise us that the most visible flowering of this disability-obsessed genre came at a time when the culture wars were starting to animate the full force of Southern and Midwestern Protestantism into a politically active bloc with an agenda for cultural change? Surely that socio-political context stands behinds Gary Bradford’s “better land.” The Evangelical doom song, with perhaps its best representatives in the Louvin Brothers, rose to prominence at much the same time.

The fundamentalist folk spirituality that these songs present are a major cultural context in the wonderfully disturbing, deeply Catholic work of Flannery O’Connor. In her short story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” she injects it into her description of a Southern freak show. A hermaphrodite addresses two crowds – one made up of men, another of women – before displaying its unusual genitalia. The freak says,

“I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.” The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal and neither high nor low, just flat. “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.” Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over onto the women’s side and said the same thing. (The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor 245).

Later, the hermaphrodite leads a kind of religious service centered on its own experience of God’s Providence.

She could hear the freak saying, “God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute hit,” and the people saying, “Amen. Amen.”
“God done this to me and I praise Him.”
“Amen. Amen.”
“He could strike you thisaway.”
“Amen. Amen.”
“But he has not.”
“Amen.”
“Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God’s temple, don’t you know? Don’t you know? God’s Spirit has a dwelling in you, don’t you know?”
“Amen. Amen.”
“If anybody desecrates the temple of God, God will bring him to ruin and if you laugh, He may strike you thisaway. A temple of God is a holy thing. Amen. Amen.”
“I am a temple of the Holy Ghost.”
“Amen.”
The people began to slap their hands without making a loud noise and with a regular beat between the Amens, more and more softly, as if they knew there was a child near, half asleep. (Ibid., 246)

O’Connor, who suffered from lupus herself, draws a parallel between the freak’s preaching and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. In the two episodes, we can perceive both the sovereignty of God’s Providence and the sacramental capacity of matter to bear God.

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A holy card depicting a monstrance, used in Benediction. (Source)

It strikes me as intuitively sensible that O’Connor should have chosen precisely this story to contrast Protestant and Catholic music. Early on in the story, two young Church of God men try to woo a pair of Catholic sisters by singing a Gospel hymn, complete with guitar and harmonica. The girls, who have been educated at convent school, bite back their giggles and respond with the Tantum Ergo. One of their suitors is more right than he knows when, puzzled and slightly disapproving, he calls it “Jew singing.” The two forms of music, though standing in an apparent contradiction, together anticipate the underlying sacramental truth presented by both the Protestant and Catholic services that conclude the story.

O’Connor makes much of Protestant devotional culture in one of her novels, The Violent Bear It Away (1955). It is the story of a boy called to prophesy, of his skeptical schoolteacher cousin, and of the battle they wage for the soul of a mentally disabled child. At one point, we come to the performance of a family of traveling musical missionaries. The high point of the act comes when their little daughter emerges from behind the curtain to preach a rousing sermon. In the course of her preaching, she delivers what may be the book’s central message:

“I’ve seen the Lord in a tree of fire! The Word of God is a burning Word to burn you clean!…Burns the whole world, man and child…none can escape…Are you deaf to the Lord’s Word? The Word of God is a burning Word to burn you clean, burns man and child, man and child the same, you people! Be saved in the Lord’s fire or perish in your own! Be saved in…” (The Violent Bear It Away 134-35).

O’Connor is fond of granting the most clear-eyed spiritual vision to the children in her stories. Many have profound experiences of grace that mark them forever, or they bear testimony of the invisible world’s dangerous immediacy to more skeptical characters.

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This album makes me think of O’Connor’s 1955 The Violent Bear It Away. (Source)

That includes O’Connor’s disabled children. “The Lame Shall Enter First,” one of O’Connor’s most emotionally crushing short stories, is a close companion to The Violent Bear It Away. It tells the story of a well-meaning social worker, Sheppard, who takes in a clubfooted juvenile delinquent, Rufus Johnson, hoping to steer him towards a productive life. Although he can overlook Rufus’s constant spite, Sheppard is exasperated by the fundamentalist beliefs he clings to. Rufus is convinced he is going to hell, and starts to talk about it with the social worker and his impressionable young son. He steadily grows into the role of preacher even as Sheppard tries desperately to “flush that out of [his] head.” I won’t get into any spoilers, as the story has a wrenching, unforeseen climax. I’ll just say that Sheppard finally realizes he has failed only when Rufus cries at him,

“I lie and I steal because I’m good at it! My foot don’t have a thing to do with it! The lame shall enter first! The halt’ll be gathered together. when I get ready to be saved, Jesus’ll save me, not that lying, stinking atheist, not that…” (The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor 480).

Sheppard attributes all of Rufus’s bad behavior to the emotional effect of his clubfoot. But Rufus finds his one hope of salvation in the fact that he has a disability that, according to the logic of heaven, will ensure that he enters the Kingdom first. For Rufus, as for so many of the artists mentioned above, it represents both faith and hope (if not yet charity). Sheppard is too blinded by his prejudice and his loneliness to see that. The results are calamitous.

Rufus’s underlying insight speaks to a truth often forgotten in the Church’s treatment of the disabled. Those with disabilities are not “problems.” It’s true that they may have some special needs with regards to access, attention, etc. But at the end of the day, they are people who have the same basic spiritual needs as any other human beings. They, too, can embody and image Christ – often better than those of us who are blessed enough to be of both sound mind and body.

Gary Bradford himself has spoken publicly about this issue before. Some time in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, Bradford – by then an adult – gave an interview with a Christian television network. He says,

In the past…so many of our churches, and so many of our people in our church in the past, it’s been the place for the good, the well-bodied, and the abled…And the Church isn’t to be like that; the Church is to take all.

Of course, the other great danger is to place too much emphasis on the disability and not enough on the person who has it. The “magical disabled person” should not become a trope in Christian life. We can’t load our disabled brethren in Christ with that moral freight. It isn’t fair. The disability Gospel genre fosters precisely that kind of harmful thinking; perhaps that is its greatest cultural fault.

I think we can avoid either extreme – neglect or overemphasis – by focusing instead on the individuality and personhood of every disabled Christian. Insofar as the disability Gospel song is an ex voto, it may seem to correspond to a certain type. Catholic ex votos usually do. But that’s only to the outsider who beholds the ex voto. For the one who makes it (or commissions it), the story it tells carries intense and highly particular personal meaning. Put another way; Sheppard may not grasp the hidden meaning of Rufus’s club foot, but Rufus does.

The same goes for the Protestant ex votos we find in this genre. They may seem to correspond to the demands of a cottage industry, but they all epitomize and present individual experiences. That particularity is the best thing we can take from this strange, lost genre of Christian music. There are no generic souls, abled or otherwise.

 

Elsewhere: Two Readings for a First Friday

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Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us. (Source)

I’m working on a big blog post that’s running rather long. In the meantime, I wanted to refer two posts that, although different in some ways, have a common center.

The first is a little old, though I rather sheepishly confess I only just read it. John Monaco has a very good post over at Inflammate Omnia on how the Sacred Heart devotion can help those struggling with mental illness. John goes over the history of the scrupulous, doubtful view of God’s love, most egregiously enshrined in the heresy of Jansenism. But he also looks at the ways that the Sacred Heart can lead those who suffer from scrupulosity and obsessive-compulsive disorder to approach a healthier, more accurate relationship with God.

The second is from an acquaintance of mine named Patrick McCoy who is both a fairly traditional Catholic and same-sex attracted. Over at his blog, O Crux Ave, he relates his recent experience engaging in street evangelism at St. Louis PrideFest, where he led a small team with the goal of sharing the Love of God with the LGBT community. Appropriately enough, he calls this ministry #SacredHeartLoves Outreach.

Although the two posts deal with different topics, together they form a kind of diptych about the Sacred Heart. Both are honest, even vulnerable personal narratives. Both proclaim the unconditional Love of God for stigmatized groups: the mentally ill and sexual minorities. Thus, both are fitting to read on this first Friday of July, the month of the Precious Blood of Jesus, spilled for all mankind.

Unfashionable Thoughts on the Proliferation of Bibles

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

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

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

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

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

An Observation

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

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

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This is a real thing. (Source)

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

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

The Problem

These trappings are all deeply insidious for several reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

The Decay of the Scriptural Aura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Return to the Family Bible

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

FamilyBible

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

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