A Century on the Precious Blood

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The Golden Tree and Achievement of the Holy Grail, Edwin Austin Abbey, c. 1895. (Source)

1. When the Holy Ghost hovered over the waters, the uncreated light that shone from His face turned the waters red after the likeness of the Most Precious Blood.

2. The Most High made all things with breath and water and fire. He made all things for His love, that is to say, under the Blood. At the beginning were breath and water and fire under Blood. At the end will be breath and water and fire joined to Blood.

3. The four rivers, when traced back to their source, become one in the Garden, and the source of that one river is the well in Christ’s side.

4. The juice in the fruit of the Tree of Life is the Precious Blood.

5. When Cain murdered Abel, the Lord reproached him with the words, “Thy brother’s bloods cry out to me from the dust,” thereby speaking for the blood of all the generations of Abel destined never to bear fruit. Likewise, when Isaac was led to sacrifice, it was the first thirst of the Precious Blood of Christ contained therein. Its presence by anticipation in Isaac’s blood both set him apart as a sacrifice and saved him from death.

6. The flood that cleansed the world of sin was the earthly mirror of the heavenly flood of Divine Blood.

7. Yet even a flood that covered the whole face of the earth is as nothing before the torrents of Blood stored up in the Heart of the Most High.

8. When God set His bow in the clouds, every color spoke of some hidden secret. Red, the color of Blood, spoke silently of the mysterium tremendum.

9. The sacrifice of Isaac was a consecration of his blood into an eternal likeness of the Lamb’s Precious Blood.

10. When Moses prayed, and the Nile turned to blood, that blood was but an imitation of the Heavenly Blood that would deal death to the wicked powers.

11. When the Jews covered their doors in the blood of the Passover, that blood was but a foretaste of the Heavenly Blood that would deliver the whole world from death and bondage.

12. The sea that bowed before the people of Israel but covered their persecutors worked after the pattern of the Precious Blood.

13. The Martyr is like unto the rock that sent forth pure water at Massah and Meribah. The life-giving stream let loose from the stricken flesh of the Martyr is the very Blood of Christ.

14. The name of God, Jehovah-Jireh, refers to the Blood of Christ unfurled upon the Cross Triumphant.

15. The true and eternal Israel is constituted by the anointing of the Most Precious Blood.

16. The Precious Blood covers all who seek it with a dazzling darkness.

17. When the face of Moses shone, it was because his blood had been made like the Lamb’s. Truly, he had washed well in the torrent of the Word.

18. The cord of Rahab the Prostitute took its crimson hue from the Precious Blood.

19. The blood-stained cord of Rahab brought salvation to her household and joined her to the Nation of Israel. So it is with all who trust in the Precious Blood.

20. The blood-stained cord of Rahab is the earthly likeness of that heavenly cord that ties together the World.

21. The Precious Blood built the Temple.

22. The Precious Blood hallowed the Temple.

23. The Temple and the Precious Blood are, in their innermost being, one and the same.

24. The Blood belongs to the Altar, as the Altar belongs to the Blood.

25. The Precious Blood speaks from the Altar.

26. The Precious Blood is never apart from the Altar. Wherever it flows, it is an offering to the Most High.

27. The Altar of the Blood is the World’s foundation. None can hope to build anything that lasts if he would forsake this cornerstone.

28. Before the third and celestial Temple was built, the Lord was content to dwell in darkness. This was the time when the Precious Blood grew and resided in the Ark.

29. The Precious Blood is a sea in which Leviathan drowns.

30. The Lord leadeth me by the still waters, lays out a table before me, anoints me with oil, and maketh my cup to run over. All of these, like the four rivers of the Garden, go up into one great deed; for the Lord has given me His Blood.

31. The Lord hath founded the Earth upon the floods, and Zion upon His Blood.

32. As the hart panteth for the water of the brooks, so must our hearts pant for the Blood of the Lamb.

33. Though our tears be our meat in this day of mourning, soon we shall have the Blood of the Lamb and His heart for an imperishable repast.

34. The Lord is my Rock because His Blood rests on the Altar.

35. The Most Precious Blood is the help of my countenance.

36. The flood and waters that speak in the Heavens are drawn from the Precious Blood.

37. When God blots out our transgressions, He uses the Most Precious Blood.

38. Idols are bloodless gods.

39. The gift of the Bride is water. The gift of the Bridegroom is Blood.

40. The Precious Blood delights, nourishes, bears, imparts, and sanctifies all Wisdom.

41. The Precious Blood is the storm out of Heaven.

42. The Precious Blood may be consumed in two ways: on a scroll, or in the cup.

43. When the Prophet came to a valley of bones, he saw that they were dry. He said this because they had lost their blood.

44. The dry bones rose again when they were watered with the Precious Blood of the Lamb, that is, when the Prophet let loose the supernal fountains of the Word.

45. Blood flows from the Temple and sweetens the Sea. The Kingdom is re-drawn from the boundaries of Blood.

46. The Kingdom and the Temple are one in its Priest-King, that is to say, they join in the Precious Blood.

47. All the fruits in the Land of Zion are watered by the Blood of the Lamb.

48. Where there is no blood, there is the Desert.

49. Some are led out to the Desert for battle. If they fight with the luminous arms of the Precious Blood, they will triumph.

50. The Desert will bloom in Blood then, and the warriors will discover surpassing delights beyond all imagining.

51. Any seed that the Precious Blood waters will bloom into a great and mighty tree, and the birds of the air will come to nest in its branches.

52. The Pearl of Great Price is hidden in the Sea of the Precious Blood.

53. Oh wonder of wonders! The Mercy of God took up matter, and manifested itself to the senses of mortal men. For it clothed itself in the red raiment of the Precious Blood.

54. The Word is written in the Precious Blood.

55. Every letter in the Word is a bottomless well and roaring flood of the Precious Blood.

56. The torrents of the Blood sing only one word, the Name.

57. The Angels take their song from the voice of the rivers, from the pulse of the High Priest’s heart, from the roars of the waterfalls of His Blood.

58. The Forerunner rejoiced and cried aloud, “Behold the Lamb of God!” He did so because he saw the one who would fill the rivers of repentance with His Blood.

59. The Precious Blood is deathless life and Fleshless food.

60. The Precious Blood, let loose by wounds and sins, can heal every wound and sin.

61. We who are born of blood must be born of a new and supernal Blood, hidden from the beginning of the world.

62. We are called sheep because we have been covered in the Blood of the Lamb.

63. Providence writes the history of the Last and Everlasting Day in the ink of the Most Precious Blood.

64. Most lamps are fed with oil. The seven lampstands of the Temple are fed with oil and the Precious Blood.

65. The seven lampstands of Mount Zion take their oil from the Mount of Olives and their Blood from the hill of Golgotha.

66. The Precious Blood is the triumph, shield, and banner of the angels.

67. The firstfruits of the Lamb delight only in His Blood.

68. The Book of Life is alive indeed, for within it courses the imperishable Blood of the Lamb.

69. No name written in the Blood of the Lamb can ever die.

70. The Precious Blood bears supernal illumination.

71. The Precious Blood is at once the river and the bridge.

72. The Precious Blood is abroad in the world, riding the Green Lion.

73. The eternal marriage is consummated at the feast where the Precious Blood fills the chalice.

74. The robes of the Arch-Prophet, High Priest, and Emperor are red, for they have been dyed in the Precious Blood.

75. To live is to exist through the Blood and in the Blood and with the Blood – and for the Blood.

76. The Christian is the one who has the Precious Blood of Jesus coursing through his veins.

77. The demons tremble and quake before the Precious Blood, for it is their utter ruin.

78. If anyone should wish to confound the demons, let him call upon the Blood of the Lamb in confidence and hope.

79. There is absolute safety in the Precious Blood of Christ.

80. There can be no peace without the Precious Blood.

81. There are seven steps to the Temple: red, black, white, red, white, black, and red. The red steps take their hue from the Precious Blood.

82. No one may stand on the seventh, scarlet step but the Lamb, the Great High Priest, the Master of the Holy of Holies.

83. No one could begin the ascent if the Lamb had not cast His Blood upon the lowest step.

84. Most souls can only aspire to the middle, red step. But this step possesses nobility beyond all telling.

85. Very few souls are called to the white step above the red. Indeed, no one can mount to the second white stair without one foot ever on the middle red one. But blessed are they who may ascend to that stair!

86. On the last and deathless day, we shall all be carried up to the white step. But our feet shall be red with the Blood of the Lamb, the dye of the middle step.

87. Sober inebriation, the delight of the saints, comes from drinking of the Precious Blood without cease.

88. The wicked drink the Precious Blood as bats, cursed creatures of night. The penitent drink the Precious Blood as hummingbirds, remaining in bliss before the fragrance of Christ’s wounds.

89. The blood of the martyrs is one with the Blood of the Lamb.

90. The whole of heaven and earth is watered by the Precious Blood. If that flow should fail at any second, an untold ruin would fill all things.

91. The Precious Blood hides under three veils: the black, the white, and the red.

92. The black veil is the water of cleansing.

93. The white veil is the oil of illumination.

94. The red veil is the wine of union.

95. The most perfect of these veils is the red, for it perfectly manifests the ineffable truth it conceals.

96. The black and white veils lie outside the red – but once they are removed, they can never be put back on.

97. Those who see the red veil now may hope to see it removed when the Book is opened and all have their names restored to them in the Precious Blood.

98. The Precious Blood is the red candle enkindled by the Uncreated Fire.

99. The Lamb bleeds on seven seals within the seven bloodstained pillars, and these become the seven supernal fountains.

100. When the Precious Blood is poured out, it becomes still as wine held in a chalice. The Dove broods over it, and with the Light of the Dove on the surface, the Bride can find her true face as in a mirror of crystal.

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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?

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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.

Life Update: Graduate School

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St. Stephen’s House, Oxford. Source.

This won’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me personally, but in the interest of honesty, archiving, and my own historical interests, I thought I’d post here that I have decided to attend the University of Oxford next year in pursuit of an M.Phil. in Theology, with a concentration in Ecclesiastical History. I will be living at St. Stephen’s House.

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The coat of arms of St. Stephen’s House. It incorporates elements of the coat of arms of its founder, Bishop Edward King. (Source)

I’m very happy to be at St. Stephen’s. It is the Anglo-Catholic seminary in Oxford. I am guaranteed to be around people who are seeking ordination in the Church of England. And very high Anglo-Catholics at that. I’m really looking forward to morning and evening prayer every day. While it may not be the prayer of the whole Church in the Divine Office, the Book of Common Prayer is nevertheless a fine, beautiful way to pray and meditate on Scripture in community. I also think that the liturgical rhythms of life at “Staggers,” as it’s called, will be salutary on the whole. It’s even motivated me to try to memorize a few of the old collects, as Peter Hitchens demonstrates in this debate.

While I realize it has changed a great deal over time, the history of St. Stephen’s House is one of the reasons I’m happy to be here. It may not be one of the well-known colleges (it doesn’t even seem to have very much merchandising in the way of scarves, ties, pins, cufflinks, etc., like all the other ones). But Staggers did play its part in the history of Anglo-Catholicism. Founded by Bishop Edward King of Lincoln in 1876, the house soon became a major center of Anglo-Catholicism. It started to produce Tractarian priests by the dozens, and eventually gained a reputation as a factory of bishops and deans of cathedrals. This prolific connection to the Church of England’s highest chambers has continued into its more recent years.

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Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln. (Source)

Its relationship with Oxford, on the other hand, has varied. It only attained Permanent Private Hall status in 2003. In moving to that arrangement, it joined other historically religious foundations at Oxford: Blackfriars for the Dominicans, St. Benet’s for the Benedictines of Ampleforth, Wycliffe Hall for Evangelicals, Campion Hall for the Jesuits, and Regent’s Park (nominally) for the Baptists. It was at that time that the House broadened its emphasis to include those who were not seeking ordination in the C of E.

Moreover, Staggers has moved around Oxford. It started as a small community near the heart of town, and only much later moved to its present location across the Cherwell. To wit:

For the House’s first years, it was situated near the centre of Oxford, where the New Bodleian Library now stands. From 1919, the House had a site in Norham Gardens, near to the University Parks. In 1980 it moved to the current site…(St. Stephen’s House Blog).

The accommodations that the House took up were built by the Society of St. John the Evangelist, named alongside the parish church they ran (although it is now largely a concert venue, the House clergy still conduct liturgies there each week). The Society priests were also known as the Cowley Fathers. T.S. Eliot conducted at least one retreat there, although he was generally closer to the Benedictines at Nashdom and the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham (see Spurr’s biography, Anglo-Catholic in Religion).

In the mid 20th century, the House prospered under the benevolent influence of Father Arthur Couratin, allegedly referred to by some as “Noël Coward in a clerical collar.”

Halliday, Edward Irvine, 1902-1984; Reverend Canon Arthur Couratin, Former Principal of St Stephen's House

Canon Arthur Couratin, Principal of St. Stephen’s House. (Source)

Although its ethos remains largely Anglican, the House has offered a few important alumni to the Church of Rome. Balthasar scholar and theologian Father John Saward graduated there, as did the one-time Bishop of Ebbsfleet and current priest of the English Ordinariate, Monsignor Andrew Burnham. Indeed, they’ve even produced the Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, Hovnan Derderian. He is the youngest Armenian archbishop.

Staggers also gave the Church of England Fr. Kenneth Leach, an important Christian Socialist priest. He was trained at St. Stephen’s when it had become a rather homoerotic place, and Leach would famously sum up his time there as “gin, lace, and backbiting.” The writer and Staggers alum A.N. Wilson composed a bitingly comedic satire of the House in those years, entitled Unguarded Hourswhich, as Ignatius Press’s reviewer puts it, is decidedly “not a Catholic novel.” Alas. Wilson, who would eventually return to Christianity after years of very public atheism, would later recall the custom formerly in vogue at Staggers of taking “religious names” that were actually rather saucy nicknames, often of the opposite sex. If Father Couratin was “Noël Coward in a clerical collar,” it seems that by the 1970’s, you were more likely to find Julian and Sandy in soutanes.

I seriously doubt that any of that persists. Women’s ordination in the C of E means that, while many Anglo-Catholics have become more liberal, their seminaries no longer smack of the kinds of homoerotic associations that fueled so many stereotypes (see Cousin Jasper’s famous quip in Brideshead Revisited). Staggers seems to remain as a pillar of sensible, ornate, properly Anglo-Catholic liturgy at its best.

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A liturgy at the parish church of St. John the Evangelist, St. Stephen’s House, Oxford. (Source).

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A requiem for the founders of the House. (Source)

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A priest says a Mass at St. Stephen’s House. I highly recommend the source I took this from, Merrily On High. An excellent source for all things Anglo-Catholic.

Of course, I could also emphasize the importance of Oxford in general as a center of CatholicismRoman and otherwise. Here, the Subtle Doctor “fired France for Mary without spot.” Here, Cardinal Wolsey established a college named for his office and, later, all of Christ’s Body on earth. Here, Archbishop Laud attempted to bring back devotion to Our Lady through a little portico on her church in town. Here, Charles I took refuge while his queen heard the Mass of Ages in Merton Chapel. Here, Keble railed against a “National Apostasy.” Here, Newman battled the liberals, and in doing so, broke ground for the Second Spring. Here, Gerard Manley Hopkins served briefly as curate. Here, Oscar Wilde flirted with men and the Church for the first time. Here, Monsignor Ronald Knox cut his clerical teeth as the chaplain of Trinity College. Here, Montague Summers was first haunted by the Vampyre’s shadow. Here, Tolkien and Lewis and Williams and their friends spoke about God long into the stout-softened night. Here, T.S. Eliot studied briefly before going on to greatness in London. Here, Evelyn Waugh thought up a story about two men and a teddy bear. Here, Father Martin D’Arcy pondered the ways of divine and human love. Here, the Oratory finally arrived in 1990 to fulfill Newman’s dream. Here, the late Stratford Caldecott wrote of God’s undying beauty in all things.

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An Oxford morning. (Source).

I could name more ways in which Oxford has played a special role in the life of the Catholic Church. Perhaps I will do so in another post, or a series of posts. For now, I’m just happy to say that I’ll be in a place with a lot of Catholic history, learning about that history. And thank God for that.

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“Saint Stephen,” by Carlo Crivelli. Proto-martyr and patron of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford (and perhaps a rather wan patron at that, by the look of this paintingis that asparagus in his hand?). (Source)

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Also, apparently the Prince of Wales sometimes visits. (Source)

In Defense of the “Twice-Blessed Asparagus”

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There’s a punchline here somewhere. Source.

Recently, a minor storm of controversy has erupted over an unusual proceeding at Worcester Cathedral. For those of us blissfully unaware of the agrarian culture of the British Isles, the local Asparagus Festival celebrating the fine crop of the Vale of Evesham just opened to considerable acclaim. While there are, admittedly, a few suspect elements of the Festival, it does seem to be rather harmless on the whole. The kind of thing that would make a nice weekend in the country.

The rustic peace of the celebration was soon shattered. As The Telegraph reports, organizers of the Festival asked the Dean of the Cathedral if they might have a blessing of the asparagus to kick off the harvest season. And so, at evensong on Sunday, the 23rd of April, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Seventeen, a block of the stuff was carried in a procession up the chancel alongside two costumèd festival mascots, St. George and Gus the Asparagus Man. While it was indeed St. George’s Day, we can only imagine that this is the first liturgical appearance of the humanoid Asparagacea. As we read in The Telegraph:

Angela Tidmarsh, co-founder of the festival and tourism officer for Wychavon, said the cathedral’s management had been “really enthusiastic” about the idea. “We had the asparagus blessed by the vicar of Bretforton and then we took it to the cathedral, so it’s twice-blessed asparagus,” she said. 

This really did happen in real life.

The reactions have been fairly predictable. Archbishop Cranmer has led the chorus of detractors, writing in an extremely English timbre,

Would the Church of England permit a man dressed up as a baked bean to process behind a Heinz tin of the things, and sanctify the mummery with a facade of thanksgiving? And why only adoration of asparagus? Where’s the sprout liturgy, or equality for mushrooms? Would the Dean really permit a walking fungus to participate in an act of divine worship?

In a note of (understandable) exasperation, he writes, “This is church, for God’s sake. Really, for His sake, can the Church of England not offer something clean and undefiled in the worship of God?”

While I would not normally wish to disagree with His Grace on issues of the liturgy (except, of course, when it comes to the validity of Anglican Orders), I must dissent from his wholesale condemnation of the procession. Yes, the costumes were silly in the extreme. Both St. George and Gus the Asparagus Man should have been excluded from any kind of religious ritual within the Cathedral. Insofar as His Grace and others assail the ceremony on those grounds, I agree.

Nevertheless, on principle, I think the blessing of the asparagusnay, even its double blessing!is a good thing. Along with Rod Dreher, I say, “Still, I am in my heart of hearts an Asparagus-Blesser; here I stand, I can do nothing other.”

There is good Biblical precedent for precisely this kind of rite. In the twenty sixth chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, we read,

And when thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God will give thee to possess, and hast conquered it, and dwellest in it: Thou shalt take the first of all thy fruits, and put them in a basket, and shalt go to the place which the Lord thy God shall choose, that his name may be invocated there: And thou shalt go to the priest that shall be in those days, and say to him: I profess this day before the Lord thy God, that I am come into the land, for which he swore to our fathers, that he would give it us. And the priest taking the basket at thy hand, shall set it before the altar of the Lord thy God…And therefore now I offer the firstfruits of the land which the Lord hath given me. And thou shalt leave them in the sight of the Lord thy God, adoring the Lord thy God.

As a matter of Biblical principle, the good people of the Vale of Evesham ought to be allowed to bring their own first fruits to the Cathedral, the seat of their bishop, and receive the Lord’s blessing. Moreover, similar practices are not unknown in the Church Universal. Byzantine Catholics and Eastern Orthodox bring forth their first-fruits on Transfiguration Day to be blessed. Indeed, Orthodox priests have been caught blessing all manner of strange articles. And within Anglicanism, the Book of Common Prayer (1928) allows for the following pious sentence to be recited at the beginning of Morning Prayer on occasions of thanksgiving:

Honour the LORD with thy substance, and with the first-fruits of all thine increase: so shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine. Prov. iii. 9,10.

It is unclear whether the same can be said of the Ordinariate, which inherited so much of the 1928 Prayer Book’s “patrimony.” Within the Roman Ritual, we find all kinds of blessings – including some for herbs and seeds, though these are tied to specific, Marian days in the Church kalendar. One could write an intriguing sophiological meditation on this liturgical feature – but I digress. I will merely say that, all in all, it makes perfect theological sense to offer the crop to God. The cosmic character of the liturgy, the way it gathers in all the world in the offertory, was an insight suggested by the C of E’s own Dom Gregory Dix and brought to fruition in the work of theologians like, inter alia, Alexander Schmemann, Joseph Ratzinger, and William T. Cavanaugh, though of course it is a much older idea. While this procession did not occur at the offertory of a Mass, its placement during evensong suggests the deeper implications of the Eucharistic liturgy.

There are, as I can tell, only a few concerns worth considering here:

1) Those ridiculous costumed figures in the procession – or even in the Cathedral to begin with. I wouldn’t want either at a liturgical function.

2) The blessing wasn’t tied to any liturgical date, such as the blessing of Roses on the Feast of St. Rita or the blessing of animals on the Feast of St. Anthony the Abbot.

3) It’s not clear that the blessing should have taken place at Choral Evensong, within the nave of the Cathedral, during a procession. Most of the similar traditions don’t seem to involve that kind of performative element within the temple.

Point 1 stands. The photo above speaks for itself.

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The least Gus the Asparagus Man could have done is make sure he was properly vested in cassock and surplice, which Rev. Gilbert has attempted with only partial success in this shot from “An Easter Carol.” Source.

However, I do think Points 2 and 3 can be open to discretion. Priests bless things all the time when they are asked, and while there are some regulations governing that act (such as those surrounding the imposition of the Brown Scapular), most priests bless freely and willingly. Nor am I convinced it’s a problem that the good folk of Worcestershire wanted to incorporate the Church into their festival. Indeed, they went so far as to have their prize vegetable blessed twice! After all, ought not the Church stand as an institution blessing the communal life of the people, correcting their morals, teaching them the Way of Life, and communicating sanctifying grace to them in the sacraments? While it is certainly an open question as to whether the Church of England does this effectively (or even has the power to do so), the principle remains one that the English have always cherished in their own, peculiar way. There is an earthiness to English communal spirituality. One cannot imagine the same scene happening in Ireland or France or even Spain (though possibly in Italy, as English Christianity since the 19th century has approximated Italian spirituality in various unexpected ways; as Dreher notes, the Church of Siena blesses the horses before the Palio, and within the temple!). I confess, my immediate reaction to the blessing of the asparagus was laughter. The whole thing struck me as, well, so very Chestertonian. G.K. even devoted a 1914 essay to the plant.

Of course, I ought to come clean about one of my own biases. Asparagus is my favorite vegetable. Steamed, grilled, or baked, I find it a surpassing delight. I suppose that the Good Lord, who so lovingly and approvingly gave it to us on the third day of creation, agrees with me. Whether He shares my amusement at the procession of the blessed asparagus is another matter, and one I don’t presume to find out any time soon.

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G.K. Chesterton: 100% would eat asparagus that has been blessed twice. Source.