I made this spooky content for Halloween. Enjoy.
I made this spooky content for Halloween. Enjoy.
In a recent post, I quoted a letter sent by de Marquais, Abbot of St. Martin’s, to Cesar Baronius about humility and trust in the Providence of God whenever our work seems discouraging. The source I used, the Mediatrix Press edition of Lady Amabel Kerr’s biography of Baronius, has been a great read thus far. In the same chapter, I also found this excellent passage from the Annals, presumably also translated by Lady Kerr herself. She takes it from the dedication of the sixth volume of the Annals.
“No man, however distinguished in intellect or excellent in virtue, is sufficient of himself to handle sacred things. This is clearly demonstrated in Scripture by the example of that artificer who, though employed on only the mechanical structure of the place wherein God was to be worshipped, was declared by Moses to be thereby specially united to divine things. ‘The Lord has filled Bezaleel with the Spirit of God,’ said he, ‘with wisdom and understanding and knowledge and learning, and to work in gold, silver and brass, and in engraving stones and in carpenter’s work. Whatever can be devised artificially He hath given his hand.’ Yet Moses adds that even this work, so well done by aid of the Holy Spirit, was not to be used for God until it had been blessed. If then he who handled only the materials intended for the future service of God had to be himself given to God, how much more is expected of him on whom falls the burden of expounding those things which belong to the truth of the Church. Without doubt he should be ever filled with the Spirit of truth, so that he may complete his work standing firm in the truth.” (qtd. in Kerr 156-57)
As someone who hopes to someday write actual theology, I find these words both challenging and profound. I love the idea that a book can be a kind of little Tabernacle. I hope to carry out my own work—academic, creative, and whatever I can throw up on this blog—in just such a spirit.
Too often, it seems that contemporary theologians treat their field as part of the Humanities rather than Divinity. They are overly concerned with political questions, or theories of signification and interpretation, or some such narrow province. On the other hand, some would go too far and forget the other side of the truth that Baronius expounds through his metaphor. The theologian, like Bezaleel, prepares a human work fit for a divine dwelling, but it is indeed a human work. It should speak a human language.
The proper posture, I think, is somewhere between the two. In other words—theologians must remember that their vocation, like all vocations, is theandric. The Sophiological Renaissance led by Michael Martin and the other folks over at Jesus: The Imagination seems to be a good example of that balance applied to actual religious writing. So is the deeply Eucharistic monastic theology of Dom Mark Daniel Kirby. In both of these (very different) cases, the writers achieve the divinity-humanity balance in their theology by hewing close to the sacraments and the sacramental worldview. As Sergius Bulgakov said, “one should imbibe theology from the bottom of the Eucharistic Chalice.”
I like to think that Cardinal Baronius might agree.
I intend to keep updating this post as a running list of the books I have completed (though not necessarily started and completed) over the summer. I will include a short blurb and review for each title. Thus far:
1. The Benedict Option. Rod Dreher. 2017. Non-fiction.
An argument for focusing on Christian community-building in the face of an increasingly hostile secular liberal order. And a very flawed argument at that. But the book got me thinking about a better option, so as a provocation to thought and discussion, it works pretty well.
2. A Litany of Mary. Ann Ball. 1987. Non-Fiction.
A lovely exposition of and meditation on various titles of Mary. Would recommend for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Our Lady, her role, and her apparitions in the modern world. Particular highlights are some of the rarer titles such as Our Lady of the Cenacle and Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament. If you have (or want) a devotion to Mary under one of her titles, this is the book for you.
3. Free Women, Free Men. Camille Paglia. 2017. Non-fiction.
The dissident feminist’s newest collection of essays. Gives a great taste of her style and scholarly concerns over the course of her long career. Topics range from The Real Housewives, “Southern Women,” BDSM, Puritanism, and all kinds of feminist spats. Her essay “On Abortion” is one of the most idiosyncratic and provocative takes on the issue I have yet read. Paglia never tires of displaying her acid wit and crackling prose. Perhaps her greatest flaw, beyond those points where she is simply wrong, is her irritating autobiographical tendency. I could do without the seventh mention of her childhood Halloween costumes. But all in all, a read well worth the effort.
4. The Leopard. Giuseppe di Lampedusa. 1958. Fiction.
The decline and fall of a Sicilian noble family. There’s romance, history, and a dollop of nostalgia that Lampedusa sprinkles with acerbically cynical observations about his characters. It’s uncommon to find a class commentary that doubles as a sensitive psychological portrait. The Leopard is just such a rare gem. Lampedusa has a knack for evocation. You can feel the heat of the Sicilian sun radiating from the pages; with Lampedusa, you can almost catch a faint whiff of ambergris over the rot. His style is a slow-moving delight, well-suited to his subject. There’s also a Great Dane, which is always a plus.
5. The Black Arts. Richard Cavendish. 1967. Non-fiction.
A helpful, if perhaps somewhat dated, exposition of occult history and practice. Cavendish presents a thorough overview of dark magic. His wry, understated humor makes it a great read (one quote: “[Éliphas Lévi’s] later books are less interesting, including his History of Magic (1860) and The Key of the Mysteries (1861), which he himself translated into when he was reincarnated as Aleister Crowley…The learned English occultist A. E. Waite, who was not a reincarnation of Lévi, but succeeded in translating the secrets of the Doctine and Ritual all the same” pg. 29). Would strongly recommend to anyone with a love of horror fiction, the macabre, Christopher Lee, the Kabbalah, Latin, and batsh*t crazy characters from the Victorian and Edwardian periods (including Montague Summers). It made me want to read Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot and watch Penny Dreadful.
6. Chickamauga. Charles Wright. 1995. Poetry.
Remarkable, luminous poetry by a professor at my alma mater. T.S. Eliot’s spiritual and stylistic successor. Reading him is like reading a mystic in motion—more ornate that Wendell Berry, more apophatic than William Blake. I cannot recommend him highly enough.
In a recent post, I suggested that Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is a flawed, if well-intentioned, strategy for the Church in our times. I stand by that opinion. I also would like to offer my own “option,” as so many others have done. I will refrain from detailing specific suggestions and strategies, as I have neither the time nor the knowledge nor the experience to profitably contribute to any discussion of specifics. Nonetheless, I think I can say a few things about the general spirit and principles of what we might choose instead of The Benedict Option.
For starters, it would be called something different. Although St. Benedict is an eminent and powerful patriarch, I submit to you that, for our purposes, we must look at another man in an era far more like our own, a man whose spiritual sons also offer powerful examples. That man, of course, is St. Philip Neri.
Early Modernity as Proto-Postmodernity
Like Dreher, I choose my patron saint in part because I think the unique conditions of our own moment deeply resonate with those which St. Philip faced. Any comparison between different periods of time are naturally going to fall flat in certain specifics. But consider, if you will, the following phenomena.
The rise of the Internet, like the advent of printing, has opened up new models of knowledge and new conceptions of the self. Our lives are ever more global, even as new forms of nationalism emerge. We are increasingly aware of various forms of religious difference. Some are extremist, and even violent (see, inter alia, the Münster Rebellion and the sects of the Interregnum). Within the Church, we face public in-fighting among the Cardinals, dangerous sacramental, moral, and doctrinal laxism, a German Church that is falling apart, and a Pope whom the Roman People themselves dislike. We face serious problems with the climate. Our educational aspirations and models are increasingly oriented towards social climbing, even as our specialties are becoming narrower. Literary and textual criticism set the terms of debate in the academy. More broadly, sexual mores have changed considerably, and culture war is the order of the day. Homosexuality and gender nonconformity have emerged as increasingly widely-recognized social phenomena. Our civilizational relationship with Islam is complicated, to say the least. Class divisions and structural inequality have led to political instability. Indeed, unthinkable political events, stemming in large part from those class frictions, have jettisoned any sense of certainty we might hope to sustain.
St. Philip arrived in Rome shortly after just such an unthinkable event. In 1527, the armies of the Emperor descended upon the Papal States and launched a horrifyingly brutal sack of the Eternal City. Both Lutheran and—more scandalously—Catholic soldiers raped, pillaged, and desecrated their way through Rome. It was the second and last sack of Rome committed by civilized Christians, and it put an effective end to the Renaissance in that great city.
Alfonso Cardinal Capecelatro, one of St. Philip’s nineteenth century biographers, describes the event as:
…the terrible sack of Rome in 1527, which had no parallel in the history of the Church, whether regarded as a warning or a chastisement. We must go back to Attila and Genseric to find any event which even distantly approaches it in horror; and even those barbarians were civilized and even reverent in comparison with the soldiers of the most Catholic king and emperor, Charles V. A drunken, furious horde of Lutherans and Catholics together was let loose upon Rome…there were…unutterable outrages not to be thought of without a shudder. (Capecelatro 23).
Pertinent to our purposes, however, is the effect that this calamity left on the culture of Rome. Here, too, Capecelatro is a helpful resource.
To enter into the city of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul at a time when their authority was spurned, vilified, and trampled into the mire by a terrible heresy; to visit the spots hallowed by the blood of martyrs when all around were the hideous traces of their recent profanation; to live in the holy city when the lives of the clergy themselves were dissolute or unbecoming, when paganism in science and letters and art was alone in honours must have been, to the heart of a saint such as Philip’s, an anguish inconceivably bitter. (Capecelatro 24).
If, like Dreher, we wish to compare our own times to the sack of Rome, we ought to look a thousand years later than he does. As with Rome circa 1535, we live in a culture riddled with “a terrible heresy,” Dreher’s “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (among others). We Christians in America have witnessed the martyrdoms of our Coptic and Middle Eastern brethren over mass media. The Church is still reeling from a time when “the lives of the clergy themselves were dissolute [and] unbecoming.” The sins of clerical sex abuse continue. And insofar as there is a pagan tendency in our culture today (Camille Paglia certainly thinks there is), it resides in our “science and letters and art.”
While I don’t wish to belabor the point too much, I’ll add that not all is cause for alarm. Many of the good things about early modernity are also true today.
In 1850, Fr. Faber gave a series of lectures to his spiritual sons at the London Oratory. His subject was “The Spirit and Genius of St. Philip Neri.” The second lecture includes a long consideration of St. Philip as the “representative saint of modern times” (Faber 38). Faber argues,
The very essence of heresy and schism is constantly found in the disobedient and antiquarian worship of some pet past ages of the Church, in contradistinction to the present age, in which a man’s duties lie, and wherein the spirit and vigour of the living Church are in active and majestic energy. The Church of a heretic or schismatic is in books and on paper…A Catholic, on the contrary, belongs to the divine, living, acting, speaking, controlling Church, and recognizes nothing in past ages beyond and edifying and instructive record of a dispensation, very beautiful and fit for its day, but under which God has not cast his lot, and which, therefore, he has no business to meddle with or to endeavour to recall. One age may evoke his sympathies, or harmonize with his taste, more than another. Yet he sees beauty in all and fitness in all, because his faith discerns Providence in all. (Faber 40-41).
Dreher would do well to note Fr. Faber’s point. The uncharitable pessimism that animates so much of The Benedict Option is not entirely misbegotten, but certainly falls short of the truth. And why? In part, because Dreher never mentions Church history. His historical narrative of Christianity in Western culture overlooks the actual ways that Christians have responded to modernity since the 16th century. Fr. Faber does not. Instead, he writes,
…it is plain that we are in possession of a great many more doctrinal definitions than we were; the limits of theological certainty are immensely extended. Just as verified observations have extended the domain of the physical sciences, so the number of truths which a believer cannot, without impiety, or in some cases formal heresy, reject, has added to the domain of theology…Now this greater body of certain dogmatic teaching must necessarily influence the whole multitude of believers. It it tells upon literature; it tells upon popular devotion; it tells upon practice…and lastly, it tells upon ecclesiastical art…Neither, in speaking of Modern Times, must we omit to notice the natural connection there is between an increased knowledge of dogma, and the spirit of reverent familiarity in devotion, which has been so prominent a feature in the later Saints. The more extended the vision of faith becomes, th more familiar a man necessarily grows with the sacred objects of which that faith so infallibly assures him…We must not omit then to name the increase and greater universality of mental prayer, the more generally adopted systematic methods of self-examination, the more common practice of spiritual reading, the ways of hearing mass, the obligation of meditation made the condition in most cases of gaining the indulgences of the Rosary, and other things which are all so many marks of what is called nowadays the increased “subjectivity” of the Modern Mind.(Faber 44-46, 49-50).
Faber adds that anyone who would ignore this latter tendency towards “subjectivity” when seeking to evangelize would inevitably “find himself miserably out in his reckoning…The experiment would correct itself” (Faber 50). While Fr. Faber’s optimism is perhaps just as simplistic as Dreher’s pessimism, his perspective helps us attain the proper, prudential, balanced orientation towards modernity that The Benedict Option flatly misses.
Faber offers his historical assessment as a prelude to the consideration of St. Philip Neri’s life and spirituality. For Fr. Faber, St. Philip combines in his person and example the very best of what modernity has to offer. After all, Faber notes, Pippo Buono was ordained while the Council of Trent met. His movement began in an urban setting, “the very capital of Christendom itself,” and he managed to meet and influence “people of all nations” (Faber 51).
Even St. Philip’s personality was that of
…a modern gentleman, of scrupulous courtesy, sportive gaiety, acquainted with what was going on in the world, taking a real interest in it, giving and getting information, very neatly dressed, with a shrewd common sense always alive about him, in a modern room with modern furniture, plain, it is true, but with no marks of poverty about it; in a word, with all the ease, the gracefulness, the polish, of a modern gentleman of good birth, considerable accomplishments, and very various information. (Faber 52).
Fair enough. But why bother applying the example of this modern saint to our peculiar cultural and religious circumstances? It is one thing to say that a saint might have something to teach us. It is another thing altogether to say that a saint’s teaching might prepare us for the peculiarly harsh cultural conditions which seem to loom on the horizon (Dreher wasn’t wrong about all of it).
Faber answers this question, too. He writes of St. Philip:
He came to Rome at one of the most solemn crises of the Church; the capital was full of Saints, and full of corruption too. He was the quietest man at his hard work that ever was seen; yet he magnetized the whole city; and when he died he left it quite a different city from what it was, nay, with the impress of his spirit and genius so deep upon it, that it was called his city, and he the apostle of it, second only to St. Peter. It was no man clothed in camel’s hair, with the attractive paraphernalia of supernatural austerities upon him, no St. Francis, with his Chapter of Mats all round the Porziuncula, that the city and its foreign visitants went so anxiously to see; it was simply an agreeable gentleman, in a comfortable little room, apparently doing and saying just what any one else might do or say as well. He had come at his right time; he suited his age; men were attracted; he fulfilled his mission. (Faber 53).
St. Philip’s example is pertinent to our present debate insofar as he reformed late Renaissance Rome, a society much like ours, by means far more achievable and far more charitable than the contorted stratagems of The Benedict Option.
“Roots Are Very Important”
Admittedly, those words weren’t spoken by St. Philip. They’re actually the climactic revelation from Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (2013), one of my favorite films—a story that takes place in Rome. And as with all things Roman, St. Philip is never far away.
Two very singular facts stand out about St. Philip. One is that he was deeply attached to the Eternal City. And, relatedly, he never wished to start a religious order. He always claimed that the Congregation was entirely the work of Mary and the Holy Spirit. St. Philip was even reluctant to permit some of his sons to begin a house in Naples, a decision which would ultimately yield the harvest of many saints. Long before that, St. Philip required those priests he sent to San Giovanni dei Fiorentini to return to San Girolamo every day for the exercises of the Oratory—even in sweltering heat and downpours of rain.
In my recent post on St. Philip’s Benedictine tendencies, I noted that St. Philip understood that spiritual fatherhood can only be built upon a certain degree of stability. Along with that comes a strong sense of place, an immersion in the particular life of any given community. This decentralized localism is why every house of the Oratory throughout the world has its own unique spirit and apostolate. The Congregation only unites under the general aegis of St. Philip’s inspiration, not the ordinary vows of a religious order. To use a somewhat hackneyed analogy—if the Jesuits are the global corporations of the ecclesiastical world, then Oratorians are the folks who run mom & pop shops. However, there is a deeper meaning to this organizational quirk that we will have occasion to examine soon.
That domestic spirit can be summed up by the Oratorian conception of nido, or “nest.” As one source has it,
St Philip’s disciples and penitents sometimes sought him out in his room, where the Exercises of the Oratory were held in the early days. The Oratorian does not emulate a monastic detachment which would periodically surrender one’s very bedroom in manifestation of the premise that material goods are merely ad usum. The Oratorian identifies his room as a nido, a “nest.”
Strong Christian community requires roots. Dreher, as well as the good folks over at places like Front Porch Republic and Solidarity Hall, has frequently made this point over the last several years. It is not a new idea. The Benedict Option is peppered with quotes from Wendell Berry, the godfather of all American localist movements today. If Dreher’s Christian communitarianism is to succeed, then it must be predicated on something very much like the Oratorian sense of place. We would be wise to draw upon the domestic spirit of St. Philip’s nido.
And that very sense of local domesticity often leads to precisely the kind of worldly engagement that Dreher’s book tends to overlook and minimize. Although St. Philip was by no means a polemicist, he took an active interest in the affairs of the world—as they transpired within the walls of Rome. He intervened in affairs of state only once, when he required Baronius to withhold absolution from the Pope until the latter had reversed the excommunication of Henri IV. This successful bit of string-pulling on St. Philip’s part probably kept the French crown Catholic for the duration of the Bourbon dynasty.
Of course, there is more to Oratorian domesticity than that. St. Philip’s genius lies not only in his stability, but in the way he invested so much of his spiritual ministry with romanità (in every sense of the word). He drew his principle practices from the sun-baked stones and the boiling air of the Eternal City, as if by some secret alchemy. He was famous for leading ever-more popular pilgrimages along the path of the Seven Churches. And all this, to compete with and vitiate the heathen delights of the Carnival. Where else but in Rome could a saint freely lead and care for such masses of pilgrims along such a venerable route? Where else in the history of modern Europe do we see such a providential alignment of personality, place, and practice against the pagans? The established traditions of spirituality which had already formed Rome were in turn re-formed by St. Philip. It is for this reason that he has been given the honorific title of “Apostle of Rome,” alongside Saints Peter and Paul.
As long as Christianity remains tied to the parish structure, it will always be a local religion. Consequently, St. Philip Neri’s unique resourcefulness will always be relevant. Especially today. As one writer puts it, “The mission of an Oratorian is to work at ‘home’; the Oratory is thus an apt instrument of the New Evangelization, re-proposing the gospel in formerly Christian societies.” God furnishes us with opportunities all around, if only we wish to see with “the eyes of the dove” (Cant. 1:15 paraphrased).
Illumine the Intellect
Such sight will be clearer and more invigorating if sharpened by the intellect. St. Philip’s exercises in the Oratory constituted a kind of holy pedagogy for the men of Rome. In his biography of the saint, the French Oratorian Louis Bouyer describes it well:
The programme of their meetings took some ten years to crystallize into the following form: reading with commentary, the commentary taking the form of a conversation, followed by an exhortation by some other speaker. This would be followed in turn by a talk on Church History, with finally, another reading with a commentary, this time from the life of a saint. All this was interspersed with short prayers, hymns and music, and the service always finished with the singing of a new motet or anthem. It was taken for granted that everyone could come and go as they chose, as Philip himself did. He and the other speakers used to sit quite informally on a slightly raised bench facing the gathering. (Bouyer 54).
Another author gives us a more detailed understanding of the kinds of materials that St. Philip and his sons were reading, hearing, and discussing in the exercises:
In St Philip’s time, the most important of his Exercises, which came to be known as the Secular Oratory, or in some places the Little Oratory, was a daily practice spread out over two to three hours during the leisurely Roman siesta and consisting of (1) a period of mental prayer; (2) a reading from the Scriptures or some spiritual book (e.g., Denys the Carthusian, John Climacus, Cassian, Richard of St Victor, Gerson, Catherine of Siena, Innocent III’s De Contemptu Mundi, Serafino da Fermo’s Pharetra Divini Amoris—St Philip’s favourite readings were the Laudi of Jacopone da Todi and The Life of Blessed Colombini by Feo Belcari), followed by a “discourse on the book,” a commentary and dialogue on the subject of the reading; (3) a discourse on the life of a saint; (4) a moral exhortation—a discourse on the virtues and vices; (5) a discourse on the history of the Church; and finally (6) an oratorio or spiritual canticle. (Source).
Herein we find the germ of Oratorian life, “the daily use of the Word of God” (Talpa, quoted here). St. Philip’s model is eminently conversational. The Oratory converts and sanctifies, not only through its stated arms of the sacraments, prayer, and preaching, but through discussion—and, as well shall see, aesthetics.
St. Philip was not, however, given to ostentatious and idle chatter. He well understood the words of St. James, that “the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity” (James 3:6 KJV). Consequently, he always urged his sons to mortify their speech as well as their reason and intellect. The Oratorians were to be wise, intelligent, even scholarly. But they were not to speak freely of the arts and sciences, nor were they to flaunt their learning. One Oratorian father went so far as to feign ignorance of Latin; another would always try to change the subject when any scholarly or humanistic matter came up in conversation. Amare nesciri—“to love to be unknown”—these words were ever on St. Philip’s lips.
None of this is to suggest that St. Philip was actively anti-intellectual. Far from it! After all, St. Philip was a devoted student of theology and philosophy in his younger days, and Father Faber calls even the mature St. Philip a “great student of history” (Faber 53). Those words could perhaps be more truly applied to St. Philip’s spiritual son, the Venerable Cardinal Caesar Baronius. It was St. Philip who commanded Baronius to write the Annales Ecclesiastici, the first great work of church history in modern times. The project served a few functions. First, it got Baronius off of preaching, as he had the unpleasant but slightly amusing habit of turning every sermon into a lengthy and vivid discourse on the everlasting torments of hell (I hope that, when he is eventually canonized, the good Cardinal becomes the patron saint of horror writers). The project also productively occupied Baronius’s prodigious intellect, which St. Philip mortified in many other ways. For instance, Baronius was given kitchen duty so frequently that St. Philip playfully wrote above the stove, “Baronius, Coquus Perpetuus.” Finally, St. Philip and Baronius conceived of the book, which unexpectedly became a decades-long enterprise, as a way of challenging the then-dominant historiography of Protestant authors, as exemplified by the Magdeburg Centuries. A cynic might call this bias. In context, it’s perhaps more fair to interpret Baronius’s motive as one very much akin to those that animate the scholarly disputes of our own day. And because of Baronius’s thoroughgoing method, academic rigor, and meticulous attention to detail, the Annales were received with respect even by those who disputed its claims. It was so impressive a work that several centuries later, Lord Acton could honestly call it “the greatest history of the Church ever written” (Source).
Nor was Baronius the only model of learning in the Oratory. His fellow cardinal, the aristocratic Francesco Maria Tarugi, was the fox to his hedgehog. Louis Bouyer writes that Tarugi “captivated everyone with his natural eloquence and was never at a loss, no matter what the topic of the moment might be” (Bouyer 64). Here again we see the mark of what we may call the specifically Oratorian genius—erudition crowned with beautiful style and fluency in speech.
If St. Philip stands for an appropriate humility of the intellect, Baronius for a rigorous love of truth, and Tarugi for eloquence in discourse, then we must turn to a fourth figure, the greatest scholar ever to enter the Oratorian life. I speak, of course, of John Henry Cardinal Newman.
In Newman’s long, productive, and complicated life, a few key themes emerge. Three are worth examining in connection with the intellectual tradition of the Oratory. First, we may duly note that Newman always exhibited a great love of knowledge for its own sake, and thus of Truth as such. As he writes in The Idea of a University,
Useful Knowledge then, I grant, has done its work; and Liberal Knowledge as certainly has not done its work,—that is, supposing, as the objectors assume, its direct end, like Religious Knowledge, is to make men better; but this I will not for an instant allow, and, unless I allow it, those objectors have said nothing to the purpose. I admit, rather I maintain, what they have been urging, for I consider Knowledge to have its end in itself. For all its friends, or its enemies, may say, I insist upon it, that it is as real a mistake to burden it with virtue or religion as with the mechanical arts. Its direct business is not to steel the soul against temptation or to console it in affliction, any more than to set the loom in motion, or to direct the steam carriage; be it ever so much the means or the condition of both material and moral advancement, still, taken by and in itself, it as little mends our hearts as it improves our temporal circumstances. And if its eulogists claim for it such a power, they commit the very same kind of encroachment on a province not their own as the political economist who should maintain that his science educated him for casuistry or diplomacy. Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. (The Idea of a University 120-21).
Along with this purity of vision, we naturally find in Newman a perennial appreciation of academic engagement, and when necessary, controversy. Indeed, Newman rose to fame and eventually converted because of his involvement in the ecclesiastical turmoil of the 1830’s and 40’s. He produced his first two great works, Tracts for the Times (1833-1841, in collaboration with others) and The Arians of the Fourth Century (1833) in light of those disputes. Likewise, Newman articulated his great theories of doctrinal development (Essay on the Development of Doctrine, 1845) and the important role of the laity (“On Consulting the Faithful,” 1859) in texts occasioned by ongoing controversies within the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches respectively. And although he could be terribly sensitive to even the slightest criticism, Newman took pains to respond with courtesy, as he did to Charles Kingsley in his famous Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1865). While Newman never sought out polemics and controversies, he was willing to engage in them when the Truth and Honor of God was at stake.
Finally, we ought to remember that Newman was always animated by a sincere love of that singular matrix of the intellectual life—academic community. His experience at Oxford profoundly shaped his worldview. He is, of course, still widely regarded as one of the great theorists of higher learning. The Idea of a University (1852, 1858) remains one of the most influential texts on Catholic education in modern times. But the impression that Oxford left on Newman is deeper and more subtle. Newman was drawn to the Oratory in part because he recognized in it the same collegiality that defined the best of the houses at Oxford. Newman writes,
Now I will say in a word what is the nearest approximation in fact to an Oratorian Congregation that I know, and that is, one of the Colleges in the Anglican Universities. Take such a College…change the religion from Protestant to Catholic, and give the Head and Fellows missionary and pastoral work, and you have a Congregation of St Philip before your eyes. (Newman, quoted here).
Newman first considered the Oratory in part because he hoped to offer a ministry to the intellectuals of Britain:
The local bishop, Nicholas Wiseman, invited them to the former seminary at Old Oscott while they decided what to do. Newman named it “Maryvale” and planned some sort of Catholic educational institute there. But then Wiseman sent them off to Rome for ordination. While there, they examined various religious congregations, and realised that St Philip’s Oratory was the most suitable. The Birmingham Oratory was accordingly set up in Maryvale (2 February 1847), before settling on its present site, with another Oratory in London. (Oxford Oratory).
Sadly, Newman was unable to achieve his dream of an Oratory in Oxford during his lifetime. Fr. Jerome Bertram CO has a monograph on the subject, worth looking into. Suffice it to say, Newman looked upon the university as a major and potentially ripe field for an intellectual, aesthetically sensitive Catholic missionary presence. There is a reason why Catholic ministries to university students are very often called Newman Centers.
Insofar as we are trying to draw out principles that might be of use to the Church in the face of the various cultural challenges which prompted Dreher to write The Benedict Option, I think the Oratorian example, particularly as reflected in Newman’s life and work, may be of use. What lesson we should take? That we ought not abandon the universities and all that they stand for. Yes, there are failures of free speech, episodes of intimidation, and other serious problems at many institutions of higher learning. Dreher, to his credit, has done a good job reporting on the recent madness at Middlebury and Evergreen State.
But the universities overwhelmingly remain the central locations of serious intellectual exchange in this country and the world. While there are some impressive institutions of higher learning outside of or parallel to the formal university system, these are few and far between (see, inter alia, the Maryvale Institute and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture). For what it’s worth, Alasdair MacIntyre has explicitly argued for a retrenchment of our position within the academy, both in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990) and elsewhere. As Rowan Williams notes in his review of the book, Dreher seems to write off public discourse entirely. Dreher’s decision to do so is very foolish, more likely to hurt than help the position of Christians in our culture. Moreover, it is alien to the quintessentially Oratorian spirit of a man like Newman.
One of the marks of the Oratorian charism is a devoted attention to aesthetics. Perhaps it is only appropriate that a vocation emerging from and responding to the Neo-Platonist Renaissance should share its love of beauty. The Florentine St. Philip seems to have known instinctively that beauty evangelizes well and widely.
The exercises of the Oratory were never complete without a great deal of music. Louis Bouyer tells us that St. Philip “liked the conversations to be interspersed with music and the meetings to be brought to a close by some singing, so that the evening was filled with harmony” (Bouyer 54). St. Philip engaged the talents of some of the greatest Roman composers of his day. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina took St. Philip as his confessor, and Giovanni Animuccia was so frequently involved that Bouyer tells us, “In all truth nothing but one of Animuccia’s lovely motets could distill the essence of the Oratory and pass it on undiluted” (Bouyer 55). That same essence continued in the Congregation even after St. Philip’s death. Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo premiered at the house of the Roman Oratorians in 1600, and as a result, is generally considered the first oratorio.
St. Philip did not limit his careful deployment of beautiful and holy music to the formal exercises of the Oratory. He also knew that the long walks and pilgrimages he conducted around Rome would more easily win souls if they were elevated by sweet harmony. As Bouyer reports,
On such occasions music played a more important role than ever. Animuccia would bring along Rome’s best musicians, and the ‘Adoremus te Christe’ by Orlando de Lassus, or the ‘O vos omnes’ by Vittoria, would mingle with the sound of the fountains’ silvery cascades, of the leaves rustling in the sea breeze…On their way in the freshness of those early summer mornings on the Roman Campagna, Serafino Razzi’s Laudi would alternate with Gregorian Litanies.
At San Sebastiano…would follow a fine Polyphonic Mass, perhaps Palestrina’s wonderful ‘Mass of Pope Marcellus’ or his ‘Ecce Sacerdos magnus’…On their return to the centre of the city they would visit Santa Maria Maggiore on the heights of the Esquiline. Beneath the ceiling which Alexander VI had just decorated with the first American gold to be brought by Christopher Columbus from Peru, and among the Ionic columns of pure white marble, the day would draw to a close in an outburst of Palestrina music, and a ‘Salve Regina’ would fill the falling night with its loveliness gathered from the rivers and the stars. (Bouyer 57-60).
Nor was St. Philip insensible to the appeal of visual beauty. He was fond of Federico Barocci. We can detect in Barocci’s work a certain light sfumato, an airy other-worldliness that hovers over the strikingly intimate scenes the artist depicts. In the works of Barocci, there is something of the spirit of St. Philip, in whom the presence of God was so manifest and so exemplary in one so strangely human.
Some years after St. Philip’s death, the Oratorian fathers commissioned Caravaggio to create a sizeable painting for a side-altar. The result was the famous “Entombment of Christ“ (1603-04), now hanging in the Vatican Museums.
These artistic traditions have not fallen away in later houses of the Congregation. The Brompton Oratory in London is renowned for its architecture as well as its world-class Schola Cantorum. Its founder, Fr. Faber, gained wide respect as a hymnodist and poet. Newman also wrote some excellent verse, though he is more commonly regarded as a master prose stylist; Joyce considered him the greatest prose writer in the English language. St. Philip wrote some poetry too, though he destroyed most of his verses before he died. All that survive are a few religious sonnets. As one Italian author puts it,
Philip was perhaps the first who, after the reform in our poetry effected by Bembo and other distinguished men, treated religion with that fine poetic taste with which Petrarch treated the philosophy of Plato. Philip flourished as a poet about 1540; and then he forsook literature and gave himself wholly to God, and flourished far more in holiness, until his death. But though he no longer wrote poetry, he did not set it altogether aside. He well knew its great uses when guided by a christian spirit, and therefore he made a great point of it in his Congregation. He read poetry himself, and ordered that it should be always read and used by his followers in the way described in our previous notes. (Crescimbeni, quoted by Capecelatro, here).
St. Philip frequently found ways of incorporating the Laudi of Jacopone da Todi into the spiritual reading that formed such an important part of the exercises of the Oratory. It was one of only two books we know he brought with him from Florence. The Laudi was a text to which St. Philip returned frequently throughout his life, and one that always bore new graces (Bouyer 53).
All of this goes to say that St. Philip and his sons were no philistines. They appreciated and, in some cases, produced fine art across a variety of disciplines. While their vocation was never primarily or deliberately aesthetic, Oratorians throughout history have understood the spiritual importance of beauty.
Dreher hits this point pretty well in The Benedict Option. In that sense, my dissent from his recommendation may be more a matter of emphasis than of substance. Insofar as we differ at all, I think my issue is summed up well by Rebecca Bratten Wise:
Perhaps the critics who are timid about these powerful Catholic writers working right now in our midst are waiting for someone else to “baptize” them? Perhaps they are waiting for someone else to say “I heard God there” – because they, themselves, have not learned to open the inner chambers of the ear? Because we do not have a robust Catholic arts culture that teaches us to open all the portals for reception, but instead have embraced a misnamed “Benedict Option” which is all about putting up walls and barriers, drawing those lines in the sand.
Nevertheless, I do strongly criticize Dreher for lacking a sufficiently sacramental vision. The Oratorian aesthetic makes up for this failure, in that it is primarily liturgical.
Live and Love Eucharistically
And thus, we finally turn to the most important feature of St. Philip’s life and charism, the feature which made him a saint and a father of saints—his burning, Eucharistic charity. We can find evidence of St. Philip’s Eucharistic life in the peculiar and highly somatic form of mysticism that we encounter in his vitae. St. Philip never trusted ecstasies and visions, though he was granted such graces himself—usually in connection with the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice.
Capecelatro depicts the scene for us:
But now, in his 76th year, he could no longer restrain the impetuosity of Divine love which glowed within his heart, and he resolved to say Mass in private that he might give free course to his devotion.
From that time his usual method of saying Mass was this: up to the Domine, non sum dignus, everything went on as before; but at the solemn moment which precedes the priest’s communion, those who were in the chapel withdrew, the server lighted a lamp, put out the altar candles, closed the shutters of the windows, locked both doors, and left the Saint alone with God. Philip would have none to witness the raptures of his love, or to check the freedom of his sighs, words, and tears. A notice was then hung on the door, with these words: “Silence—the Father is saying Mass.” He would remain alone with Jesus in the Adorable Sacrament for two hours, hours of contemplation and of prayer with many tears, and urgent intercession for the Holy Church, the Bride of Jesus Christ, that He would render it as holy in the life of its children as it is in its faith and teaching. After two hours the server came back and knocked gently at the door; if the Saint answered, he opened the door, relighted the candles on the altar, opened the window-shutters, and Philip finished his Mass in the usual way. If the server received no answer, he went away for some time longer, nor did he enter the chapel until the Saint gave some sign that he might do so. What passed in those hours is known to God alone; those who saw Philip when his Mass was over were struck with amazement and awe, until his countenance was pale and wasted, as of one about to die. (Capecelatro 131-32).
And this in the immediate age of Trent! What are we to make of these irregularities?
St. Philip’s Mass is not a model of liturgical praxis, but of liturgical spirituality. In his own highly idiosyncratic prayer, St. Philip becomes a universal model of the soul in adoration of the Eucharistic God. St. Philip was, indeed, one of the great apostles of adoration in his time, as he popularized the Forty Hours’ devotion in Rome. Today, the Quarant’Ore remains a tradition of the Church and the Oratory throughout the world.
St. Philip’s sons are known for their tender devotion to the liturgical rubrics. In fact, I draw my title from a line in Fr. Jonathan Robinson’s foreword to Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church (2014), by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski. Fr. Robinson speaks of an “Oratorian option” not in relation to the early stages of the Benedict Option controversy, but as “a Reform-of-the-Reform ars celebrandi” (Robinson, in Kwasniewski 3). Indeed, the Oratories of the Anglophone world have a particularly strong reputation for their reverent and careful celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. As with the best monasteries, the best Oratories exhibit “dignity and magnificence of the liturgical ars celebrandi” (source). In London, Birmingham, Oxford, Toronto, Vienna, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Washington, Brisbane, York, Manchester—in short, wherever the spirit of St. Philip prevails over all rivals and distractions—we find a true Domus Orationis, a “House of Prayer” (Matt. 21:13).
The chief fruit of this discipline is supernatural charity. St. Philip sought to found his congregation on this virtue, not the vows which have historically defined the religious state. There is a Trinitarian logic to this plan. For, just as the superabundant love in the heart of the Trinity impels the Three Divine Persons freely to create, redeem, and sanctify, so too should the love of the Oratory overflow into the streets and lead its members to good works. The love of God descends to a love of brethren, which descends in turn to a love of neighbor. Each of these lesser loves ought to confirm, extend, and refine the higher loves. This chain of charity, then, is a veritable Jacob’s ladder, for those in the angelic state are called ever to climb up and down until their passage into beatitude.
Of course, the basic pattern here is not unique to the Oratory. What sets the Oratory apart is its love of the world. A kind of holy worldliness distinguishes the Oratorian spirit, even as St. Philip’s own outlandish behavior earned him a reputation for other-worldliness. I don’t mean to suggest that St. Philip and his sons were given over to the permissive and pagan times in which they lived. Rather, I mean that St. Philip and the Oratorians are characterized by two separate but related qualities that proceed from their Eucharistic life.
First, St. Philip was renowned for prudence. After all, he was a much sought-after confessor. The irony at the heart of so many of his jokes is that, by mocking his own and others’ pretensions, he demonstrated how utterly divorced so many of our lives are from good Christian common sense. In this respect, he was a true fool for Christ very much after the Eastern model. St. Philip’s prudence did indeed appear foolish to those whose vision could not penetrate to the mysteries of God.
While in other ages, prudence led some saints to undertake and advise great hardships for the kingdom, that same virtue taught St. Philip a different path. He drew his own strength from fastidious and hidden rigors, but he always counseled his penitents to avoid excessive asceticism. Once, when the future Cardinal Tarugi, still young and wealthy and vain, came to him for confession, he asked St. Philip if he might wear a hairshirt. St. Philip saw through the man’s pride. He assented—but only allowed Tarugi to wear the hairshirt on top of all his other garments! For such an admirer of Savonarola, St. Philip could hardly have been farther from his practice when it came to matters of mortification. What little he did urge he usually salted with his own brand of humor. He famously took the Dominican novices of the Minerva out on long picnics and urged them to eat and grow fat. So, too, his pleasant indulgence of children was legendary. And what of those long walks with the crowds under the Roman sky?
St. Philip loved the world. He hated its lies and vices, but he was ever able to peer beyond that sordid stratum and into God’s glory. As one source puts it, “St. Philip was the Apostle of Rome, who by means of the ‘counter-fascination of purity and truth’ reconverted both clerics and laymen in the city at the centre of the Church.” Or, as Louis Bouyer tells us,
Does not Philip, in fact, merely yield to Renaissance optimism? Does he not ignore original sin when he bases his apostolate on freedom and confidence? His ‘religion without tears’ surely expects from undisciplined nature what the discipline of grace alone can produce?
…There is no doubt that it was dangerous to go out against the new paganism with no other arms save love, and just as dangerous to expose his apparently vulnerable simplicity to its disturbing influence, yet his outrageous method made him the victorious apostle of neo-pagan Rome. (Bouyer 28-29).
The love that conquered Rome was the fruit of St. Philip’s sacramental interior life. The unique grace of his special relationship with the Holy Spirit was a cardinal element of that life, but so was his ardent devotion to the Eucharist.
It was this element that I found so disturbingly absent in Dreher’s book. There is no properly Christ-like love of the lost in The Benedict Option, only one angry jeremiad after another. And why? Perhaps because Dreher hardly ever mentions the Eucharist. Dreher writes as if Christ’s presence on earth is an afterthought, one tool among many to be deployed in the quest for community. The result is a spiritually crabbed book, insufficiently sacramental and brimming with self-righteous anxiety.
St. Philip shows us another way.
At the end of the day, there is no silver bullet to halt the various troubles that the Church faces in what seems like an increasingly hostile, secular West. Christ never abandons us to the narrow limits of our own imagination and resources. Instead, He furnishes the Church with untold gifts, charisms, and holy exemplars among the saints. In this sense, the recent proliferation of “Options”—to which this essay contributes—is probably a blessing.
But we musn’t forget one ineradicable fact. Christ never raises these lesser creations over His own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. There is no blessing, no vocation, and no grace that can go beyond the work of the Adorable Sacrament. If we forsake the one rock of the Altar and instead build upon the sand of the innumerable personal graces and unique charisms spread throughout the Church Universal, then all of our works will shatter beneath the hammer of the storm.
St. Philip Neri understood this truth and lived it out across the long span of his ministry. Those qualities which distinguish the Oratorian charism—domesticity, localism, intellectual rigor, humility, collegiality, aesthetics, urbanity, prudence, and love of the world—can only be integrated and understood in the light of the sanctuary lamp. St. Philip’s entire life was a ceaseless testament to the power of the Eucharist “for the life of the world” (John 6:52 KJV). In keeping close to the Sacrament and to the example of St. Philip, we may just make it after all.
In conducting research for another, soon to be completed blog post, I came across this wonderful passage by John Henry Newman. I first read these words a few years ago, but had since forgotten about them. I thought it might be worth bringing them to your attention. At the very least, I wanted a place to keep the passage so that I might easily and regularly find it again. I took the text, originally appearing in The Idea of a University, from here and here.
It’s worth noting that Newman elucidates his definition to suggest that there is no supernatural merit to being a gentleman. It is a generally commendable though by no means salutary disposition, and can be cultivated without any reference to religious truth. Newman later goes on to argue that a truly Catholic institution of higher learning will thus not be content to form gentlemen, though it will do that civilizing task as well.
Hence it is that it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature; like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at his ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favors while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort; he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp saying for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny.
If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candor, consideration, indulgence: he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes. He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits.
If he be an unbeliever, he will be too profound and large-minded to ridicule religion or to act against it; he is too wise to be a dogmatist or fanatic in his infidelity. He respects piety and devotion; he even supports institutions as venerable, beautiful, or useful, to which he does not assent; he honors the ministers of religion, and it contents him to decline its mysteries without assailing or denouncing them. He is a friend of religious toleration, and that, not only because his philosophy has taught him to look on all forms of faith with an impartial eye, but also from the gentleness and effeminacy of feeling, which is the attendant on civilization.
Not that he may not hold a religion too, in his own way, even when he is not a Christian. In that case his religion is one of imagination and sentiment; it is the embodiment of those ideas of the sublime, majestic, and beautiful, without which there can be no large philosophy. Sometimes he acknowledges the being of God, sometimes he invests an unknown principle or quality with the attributes of perfection. And this deduction of his reason, or creation of his fancy, he makes the occasion of such excellent thoughts, and the starting-point of so varied and systematic a teaching, that he even seems like a disciple of Christianity itself. From the very accuracy and steadiness of his logical powers, he is able to see what sentiments are consistent in those who hold any religious doctrine at all, and he appears to others to feel and to hold a whole circle of theological truths, which exist in his mind no otherwise than as a number of deductions.
For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
(Matt. 25: 14-30 KJV).
“There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged 1054).
In every age, the relationship of the Church and the world is a fraught issue. The particular vicissitudes of politics, society, and spirituality always bring up new challenges for the Body of Christ in hac lacrimarum valle. Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, recently released by Sentinel, is a contribution to the question as we must face it in our own time. Dreher says in the book that he hopes to “sound the alarm for conservative Christians in the West,” so that they can survive “the greatest danger” of our age, “the liberal secular order itself” (The Benedict Option 236). He envisions Christians forming counter-cultural communities to sustain the life of the Faith through “modern repaganization” (197).
Insofar as Dreher wanted to start a conversation, the book is a smashing success. It has been praised and pilloried in the Christian blogosphere and beyond. Over the course of the last three and a half years, Dreher has even inspired rival “options” such as Chad Pecknold’s Dominican Option, Michael Martin’s Sophia Option, John Mark Reynolds’s Constantine Project, Dr. Carrie Gress’s Marian Option, and more. I may get into some of those reactions over the course of this essay. What I will not do is make much reference to Dreher’s authorial meddling, including his obsessive and often highly vindictive reactions to reviews he dislikes. It is enough to acknowledge that Dreher is partaking of the conversation he wanted to start. Considered solely as a social phenomenon, the Benedict Option has succeeded at beginning those important conversations about the Church’s place in the (post)modern west.
But books cannot be reduced to the conversations they inspire. They are texts, and eventually we need to evaluate them as texts. Under that demand, the record is much murkier. There are many good things about The Benedict Option, but also many bad things. Throughout, the book’s noble aspirations are frustrated by poor style, errors of content, and a palpable, hand-wringing fear.
In the interest of charity, however, I’ll begin with a few of the positives.
Dreher is concerned with the right problems: individualism, hedonism, consumerism, liberalism, secularism, relativism, etc. In short, the toxic cocktail of capitalist modernity. Of course, Dreher hardly bothers to point out that these issues are intimately bound up with the economic system as such. But I digress.
Dreher follows upon greater scholars like, inter alia, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. There has been some controversy over Dreher’s reading of MacIntyre, but ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. Dreher was inspired by a line in After Virtue and came up with his own project (sorta…Gabriel Sanchez, among others, rightly points out that Dreher’s vision isn’t all that original anyway). So be it. The fact remains that, insofar as the book is a polemic, Dreher is aiming at the right kinds of cultural forces. It also helps that Dreher specifically limits his scope to the West. Any attempt to integrate the cultural experience of Christians in, say, Sub-Saharan Africa or the Far East would no doubt lead to an extremely different set of conclusions than those which Dreher has offered. His command of social science and ethnographic work (if not historiography) about our own situation is impressive.
Moreover, Dreher is right to mine the wisdom of the monastic tradition. Monasticism, where rightly practiced, stands as a sign of contradiction to the world’s banality, vices, and distractions. He attempts to draw something like a social doctrine out of the Rule of St. Benedict, a project I’ve long thought might be worthwhile if attempted with more systematic rigor. Dreher writes, “Because it dictates how Benedictine virtues are to be lived by monastic communities, the Rule is political” even while he recognizes that “The telos…of a monastic life is not the same as the telos of life in a secular state” (The Benedict Option 88). His Third Chapter, describing the life and spirituality of the Monks of Norcia, is a loving testament to this inspiring young order. Dreher also advocates for Christian families to turn their homes into “domestic monaster[ies]” and attempt a genuine ascetic life (124-26). In fact, his overriding goal—to bring up the next generation as faithful Christians, and thereby preserve Christianity as such—is an indisputably admirable one.
I might add that some of his thoughts on education are sensible. While I’m more skeptical than Dreher is when it comes to Classical Education, and the canon of Great Books in particular, I think the model works best at the pre-collegiate levels he imagines. I also don’t think he’s right to totally write off secular academe, but I know from the experience of friends that the academy can be a sometimes unjustly punishing place for practicing Christians. My own view is that this places an even greater urgency on Christians to contribute to intellectual life in America inside the universities, wherever and whenever possible. Rowan Williams is right to point out that
The Benedict Option…confronts the prevailing consensus about how far the majority is willing to make room for principled dissent and public argument – yet at the same time shows a rather dispiriting lack of confidence in public argument.
I can understand why Dreher and his allies don’t have high hopes for America’s educational system, but I also think surrendering our place in the universities would be a disastrously bad idea. I’ll get into that in my follow-up to this review, when I hope to put forward some of my own suggestions.
Dreher also includes a really great, extended shout-out to the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville. Having spent the better part of my Sunday afternoons at “the Stud” for meetings of the G.K. Chesterton Society, I can vouch for its excellence. I have friends who have lived there, and it’s done wonders for their personal faith lives. In fact, I first saw Dreher speak at the Stud, when he visited in February (or was it January?) of 2016. He wasn’t half bad, either. The room was packed, and he gave a pretty good pitch for what he was, even then, calling “the Benedict Option.”
But I also remember a niggling doubt about the whole thing, which I couldn’t quite identify, much less express, at that early stage. Now, having read the book, I feel more confident in my objections—but once again, I digress. I wanted to start off with the praiseworthy parts of the book.
Dreher’s “anti-politics” are timely and wise. He makes good use of the examples left to us by Czech dissidents during the Communist years. While I have a few qualms about some of his proposals—such as his insistence that Christians focus all of their energy on Religious Liberty activism and legislation—I share his disillusionment with the organized forces of both right and left.
I also commend him on his total disdain for Donald Trump. Dreher writes,
Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional. He is not a solution to the problem of America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it. (The Benedict Option 79).
Amen. As someone who did not vote for Donald Trump and hopes never to do so, I acclaim Dreher for putting those words in print. Too many Conservatives who once thought much more clearly about the morals of their leaders have since bowed and done homage to the Golden-Coiffed Calf.
There were other positive moments. The whole idea of reinforcing Christian community in the face of cultural and political opposition is a worthy goal—and a surprisingly risky one at that. Any communitarian project is necessarily fraught with certain dangers, particularly in a world already defined by stark social divisions across race, class, and other categories. As I read, I was repeatedly and pleasantly surprised by objections Dreher headed off at the proverbial pass. He hopes that Benedict Option communities can come together across ethnic and racial divides, and he recognizes the dangerous tendencies of tight-knit communities to become closed, coercive, and cultish (81, 138-143). He also gives a few really great examples from the Mormon experience (132, 34-35). While Dreher doesn’t provide any practical advice for, say, Benedict Option parents whose children come out to them as gay or lesbian, one gets the sense that he’s not in favor of shunning, shaming, and disinheritence. Which is sensible.
(And yes, I realize that as an Amish Catholic, I ought to be in favor of shunning generally. Like Whitman, “I contain multitudes”).
I think his chapter on sexual ethics is probably one of the more sensible passages of the book. The very day that I finished the chapter, I came across this article on the possibility of a new liturgy to mark gender transitions (possibly even rebaptism) in the C of E. When Dreher says that sexual teaching is a lot closer to the heart of the faith than liberals might claim, he’s not wrong.
Finally, I’ll say that he’s right to pin his hopes on beauty. Building on Joseph Ratzinger and Matthew Crawford, Dreher writes,
…the most effective way to evangelize is by helping people experience beauty and goodness. From that starting point, we help them to grasp the truth that all goodness and beauty emerge from the eternal God, who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. For Christians, this might mean witnessing to others through music, theater, or some other form of art [if only they could produce something that isn’t deeply, obnoxiously cringey, but that’s not a problem worth getting into here]. Mostly, though, it will mean showing love to others through building and sustaining genuine friendships and through the example of service to the poor, the weak, and the hungry. (The Benedict Option 119).
There are hardly any words in the book which earn my stronger approbation. Dreher is simply correct when he argues that we should “[do] activities that are pleasurable, not merely dutiful” (142). Indeed.
In spite of all these positives, I remain a BenOp skeptic. The book is rather flimsy, riddled with numerous problems. Dreher’s style never manages to break free of the chatty and occasionally shrill blogger’s voice that marks his online fare. Yet it lacks much of the humor that characterizes so much of what he writes at The American Conservative. I could overlook that sin, however, if his content were not similarly flawed. Dreher is dangerously allergic to the one thing that can save his text from its inner contradictions: nuance.
That failure colors every chapter in the book to a greater or lesser degree.
Religion is a famously thorny and multilayered subject. A religious writer aiming at the popular market can be forgiven for simplifying complex ideas to reach a broad audience. But Dreher’s approach veers away from educational simplicity and into outright reductionism.
For the sake of brevity, however, I will only get into the three very specific problems that I found most troubling to Dreher’s project and the quality of his text.
First, a somewhat pedantic point.
Dreher’s lack of nuance is most egregious in his historical narrative, given fully in chapter two and sporadically throughout other parts of the book. He argues that the Middle Ages were a time of order and devotion, in which European Christians believed in objective truths under the happy aegis of Scholastic Realism. Everyone had their place, and everyone knew the essential truths of salvation under God’s cosmic rule. Into this pastoral capriccio storms the wicked Nominalists, led by William of Ockham (1285-1347). By suggesting that universals were not real, but merely notional, the Nominalists inadvertently led to the centuries-long collapse of the sacramental worldview and all of Christendom with it.
Then came the Reformation, which is bad because it “destroyed…unity and stripped those under its sway of many symbols, rituals, and concepts that had structured the inner lives of Christians” (32). Admittedly, Dreher never mentions anything about the deficient theologies of the Reformers, nor the historical fact that Christendom had been divided since 1054 and, even before that, the Council of Chalcedon—but more on that point later.
Dreher then leads us along a whirlwind tour of Western intellectual history, leaping from one period to another with unsupported assumptions of causality. He cursorily mentions political developments such as the Wars of Religion, the American and French Revolutions, and the World Wars. Interestingly enough, he never discusses Imperialism, Colonialism, Anglo-American efforts to end slavery, or the Holocaust—yet surely all of these phenomena had a significant impact on the construction of Western religion and subjectivity.
Eventually, the reader lands in the desiccated and desecrated landscape of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity,” our own godless world, still reeling from the Sexual Revolution.
Put another way, it’s Richard Weaver warmed over, history stripped of everything but ideas and spilled blood. There are a few problems with this approach.
First, it totally fails to account for the complexity of actual history. Even an intellectual historian doesn’t just deal with ideas as such. Ideas don’t float in the ether; they don’t make their way from one thinker to another by force of osmosis. They are transmitted via books, and through those books, to different communities of readers. Intellectual history is ultimately incomplete without its companion sciences: reception history, textual history, history of the book, economic history, political history, art history, and a tremendous dollop of cultural history. Not all of these need to be present in a given text—and certainly not in a book aimed at the popular market!
But we oughtn’t let Dreher off the hook so easily.
Dreher knows that “Ideas don’t occur in a vacuum,” but his slovenly method leads to dubious lineages of causality (28). Without providing a shred of evidence, Dreher boldly asserts that “Most leaders of the Scientific Revolution were professing Christians, but the revolution’s grounding lay undeniably in nominalism” (33). What were they reading? Was the consensus among scholastic metaphysicians noticeably more nominalist in the 17th century than in prior years? Does that consensus cover all of Europe, or just certain important cultural centers? And if so, why should we believe that said consensus applied to the work of natural philosophers?
Or take another example: “[The term ‘Renaissance’] contains within it the secular progressive belief that the religiously focused medieval period was a time of intellectual and artistic sterility—a ludicrous judgment but an influential one” (emphasis mine, 30). Dreher does nothing to justify this assertion. Almost none of what he has told us up to this point suggests that he’s right. We read nothing about Medieval art or literature. We’ve only learned about the disputes of the Scholastics on a very particular question (no pun intended) and heard how great most people’s worldview was at that time.
And let’s take a look at that alleged worldview. In a paragraph which (correctly!) begins, “Medieval Europe was no Christian utopia,” Dreher then goes on to write that, “despite the radical brokenness of their world, medievals carried within their imagination a powerful vision of integration. In the medieval consensus, men construed reality in a way that empowered them to harmonize everything conceptually and find meaning amid the chaos” (25). Who exactly are these “medievals?” Just the scholars who sparred in Paris and Oxford, or the nobility, or the knights, or the bishops, or the monastics, or the vast and often perverse majority of illiterate peasants? And which culture? Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Angevins, Normans, Iberians, or the denizens of any of the myriad German or Italian or Celtic fiefdoms? How far West is he spreading his view? Do the Slavs count? And what centuries does he want us to look at? He’s working with an almost thousand year span from St. Benedict to the dastardly Nominalists. If, in fact, the worldview of that Christian civilization was immutable and homogeneous throughout such a wide variety of time and societies, then doesn’t that feed the very criticism that Dreher so stridently rejects, that the Middle Ages were a “time of intellectual and artistic sterility?” (30).
This point matters, insofar as Dreher elevates (read, “romanticizes”) the Medieval Era as his cultural ideal. The Benedict Option is nothing if not a way of thinking about community. So, which community? What are its limits?
Case in point: what about the Jews? Certainly, they were thought to interrupt that “powerful vision of integration,” which emphatically never included them. Dreher periodically returns to Modern Orthodox Jews as a great example of community-building in the face of modernity (and is right to do so). He goes so far as to call them “our…elder brothers in the faith” (124).
But his praise sits uneasily with his historiography. Only twice does he come close to acknowledging that their survival—indeed, the survival of Judaism as a whole—happened not because of, but in spite of, the Age of Faith. It is not sufficient to recognize that the Jews “have faced horrifying attempts over millennia to destroy their families and communities” (124). We must be clear that, at least in the Medieval era, the chief persecutor was precisely the Christian order that Dreher takes as his model. The one time Dreher does, in fact, mention that it’s Christian persecution, he only does so to discuss how the Jews were forced into the moneylending business. Here then is another historical difficulty that Dreher fails to adequately acknowledge or reconcile with his greater narrative.
Of course, Dreher doesn’t need to answer all of these questions, since he’s not writing an academic history of how modernity—or more properly, modernities—emerged. My point is precisely that, due to the constraints of his form and audience, his historical narrative is naturally going to paper over important, substantive nuances. And those nuances are where the truth is to be found. A project so heavily predicated on a particular way of understanding our historical moment at least ought to get its history right.
As a side-note, I’ll add that Dreher also stakes his claim pretty heavily on readers accepting his comparison of our own age to the advent of the Dark Ages (hence the whole St. Benedict thing). That’s a comparison I’m not willing to make. If anything, our times more closely resemble early modernity—a point I hope to explain more fully in my follow-up to this article. Suffice to say, Sam Rocha is correct to point out that Dreher’s view of the Middle Ages is, at best, incoherent:
On the one hand, he sees the Middle Ages as the period that required a radical retreat in the face of the fall of Rome. On the other hand, he sees the Middle Ages as a period of enchantment and deep faith. These two stories are both vastly oversimplified, but they are quite off when they are both said to be true simultaneously. How can it be the case that when Rome fell the Benedictines endured the Middle Ages guided by their Rule and, also, that the fall of Christianity happened, like Rome, after the end of the Middle Ages? Anyone can see that this story makes no sense logically. Historically, it makes even less sense.
I’m not suggesting that Dreher is necessarily wrong in his various judgments. He may well be correct in accusing the nominalists of a kind of cultural deicide (although it overlooks the Christian nominalist tendency, closely tied to empiricism, that numbers Berkeley, Burke, Hamann, Newman, and Chesterton among its ranks). Greater thinkers than him have made a similar claim. But as written, I have no reason to believe Dreher’s intellectual history. He has made a defensible claim, and subsequently decided not to defend it. He has not shown his readers the courtesy of providing evidence.
Dreher’s citations are woefully inadequate. He makes some use of MacIntyre and Taylor, who are smart, respectable philosophers. But they are not historians. To his credit, he does draw upon C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image, David Bentley Hart (although it’s his religious philosophy and not his church historical work) and Brad Gregory, an honest-to-God historian working with an honest-to-God historical method. But he incorporates Gregory to make a point that’s barely substantive, that different ideas about Christianity led to different ways of living out Christianity. Did we really need the authority of an historian to make a point that is already so blindingly obvious? Moreover, all of these citations come in the first two parts of his history: the Middle Ages and the Renaissance/Reformation. But whither Eamon Duffy? Whither Richard Rex? Whither Alexandra Walsham?
If Dreher generally fetishizes the Middle Ages, he commits the opposite sin in his treatment of modernity. He sees only the negative. Dreher’s readers would be forgiven for forgetting that, in fact, the Church has endured and ameliorated the conditions of modern life for 500 years, and that it has given the world innumerable saints during that time. Leaving aside Church history, I’ve already mentioned that Dreher omits the various emancipatory struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries. Why? Perhaps because it troubles his claim that we have arrived at a uniquely bad moment for the Church, a time in which there is essentially nothing to be gained from the culture at large.
Here, too, he lacks nuance or evidence. See his description of Freud:
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, found his true genius not as a scientist but as a quasi-religious figure who discerned and proclaimed the Self as a deity to replace the Christian religion. (41).
This is a huge interpretive move that Dreher never justifies. At all. He just asserts it as if it’s fact, not a highly contextual evaluation of a complicated historical figure whose legacy has been very mixed. None of the two paragraphs that follow even mention any of Freud’s writings.
Dreher’s view of modern technology is equally dim. Here, the problem is not that he’s overly negative, but that he’s misplaced that negativity. The book closes with an oddly stunted chapter that launches an hysterical criticism of smartphones, social media, and the Internet as such without ever bothering to mention transhumanism, AI, automation, or any of the other very possible threats looming on the horizon. Nor does he devote any space to environmental concerns. Here, too, Dreher’s failure to provide proper nuance or evidence leads to sentences like this: “The seed that was planted in the fourteenth century with the triumph of nominalism reaches its full ripeness in Technological Man” (223). Or, later, “The most radical, disruptive, and transformative technology ever created is the Internet” (224). Besides providing zero historical evidence to support either of these statements, Dreher couples his paragraphs of hysteria with passages like this:
And guess what? It’s wonderful. It has made my life better in more ways than I can count, including making it possible for me to live where I want to live because I can work from home. The Internet has given me a great deal and does every day. (224).
The effect achieved is stylistic and tonal whiplash, not thoughtful nuance.
I mentioned earlier that this criticism is somewhat pedantic. I own that. But I do think it matters. Dreher stakes his project on an historical claim about our own times. He wants to persuade us of his project’s urgency by telling a story about Christianity in the West. Failing to provide much evidence and ignoring the essential complexity of nuances means that his narrative just doesn’t come off as all that convincing.
Enough of the historical criticism. The book’s deeper problem lies in its spiritual and theological defects.
There are a few minor theological problems, such as his lamentable claim that the Rule of St. Benedict is “simply a training manual. Modern readers who turn to it looking for mystical teaching of fathomless spiritual depth will be disappointed” (15). While I would hate to presume, I think that statement would probably shock someone like Dom Mark Daniel Kirby, whose own commentaries on the Rule have brought out a rich mystical dimension in the text (see this example, in which he draws upon even more commentators who have done precisely what Dreher denies is possible for the “modern reader”). Ultimately, an error like this is forgivable. If it was the only one in the book, I’d be happy to overlook it.
Alas, there are more fatal problems.
Dreher takes a deeply ecumenical approach in The Benedict Option. By itself, this isn’t an issue. Insofar as his book can serve as an ethnography of American conservative Christianity, it’s probably a good idea. Practically, ecumenism can be helpful when it works towards the bridging of boundaries for strategic, intellectual, or conciliatory ends. Groups like my own aforementioned G.K. Chesterton Society or Dreher’s Eighth Day Books are doing small-scale, fellowship-based ecumenism well (136-37). Chuck Colson and Father Richard John Neuhaus modeled political ecumenism in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, much to the ire of fundamentalists. Similarly, intellectual fora for cross-traditional encounter can be especially productive. Journals like First Things do an excellent job facilitating that kind of positive ecumenism.
But ecumenism that ignores critical, substantive, or normative differences can be dangerous. The churches are separate for important reasons, and the stories and arguments they use to justify those differences are not to be taken lightly. For Dreher’s ostensible project, these differences ought to be of paramount importance. One cannot cooperate with someone to preserve a shared value when laboring under a false unity. Moreover, each ecclesial community will, of necessity, have a different response to the conditions of (post)modernity. They will have to draw upon their own unique resources and traditions. Their strategies will vary based on what they understand the Church to be. We can all agree that the Church—understood correctly—has its own paramount mission, the salvation and sanctification of souls. But our understandings of how the Church is meant to do that job could not be more different. Losing sight of the singularity and urgency of the Church’s salvific mission and character is the greatest danger of all ecumenical work.
I had hoped to find an ecumenism of encounter in Dreher’s book. Sometimes, I did. When he’s at his journalistic and sociological best, he provides some great anecdotes and insights across all types of American conservative Christianity. Unfortunately, the text is also riddled with a false ecumenism.
Dreher is very fond of speaking of “small-o orthodox,” as if such a thing could ever be anything more than a notional, or, at best, a situational construct. Sam Rocha, once again, puts the point well:
A second confusion is Dreher’s abstraction of Christianity. The book uses Roman Catholic sources and characters, but also includes a smattering of Protestants and a few Orthodox. By the end of the book, Dreher begins to sound like he’s written a manifesto, calling his new order “Benedict Option Christians.” Earlier he calls these “Benedict Option Churches” and “Benedict Option believers.” Just what are these churches? And what are the tenets of this belief? The book itself, with no ecclesiastical authority whatsoever and no scholarly credibility to speak of? This is tremendously abstract because there is obviously a real Benedictine Order that follows the real Rule of St. Benedict, which includes a lay apostolate for people like Dreher.
Rocha doesn’t explore the issue in all of its implications, but he’s on the money.
Dreher signals early on that his ecclesiology is, frankly, heretical. Dreher hopes to speak for and to “faithful orthodox Christians—that is, theological conservatives within the three main branches of historic Christianity” (18, emphasis mine). What revealing diction. Dreher’s working model is essentially branch theory, the heretical idea that Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism are all equally valid expressions of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” founded by Christ. In fact, Dreher seems perfectly content to go beyond the Anglo-Catholics who were and are Branch Theory’s most staunch defenders. He is happy to lump in a much wider net of Protestants, including figures like, inter alia, the pastor of “a small fundamentalist church in Minnesota” (112). No Catholic can sign on to this ecclesiology.
If Dreher had merely intended to use the theory as a shorthand for “Christians who are doctrinally and culturally conservative,” then “Dissident Christians” is a much better moniker, one that Dreher should have used throughout the book. It’s brief, it’s political, and it captures the posture towards contemporary culture that animates his entire project. It’s also ecumenical in the right way—something like the “Ecumenism of Blood” described by Pope Francis—and doesn’t lead to the confusion of important theological and ecclesiological distinctions.
True, Dreher says “Christianity,” not “Church,” but there’s other evidence of his branch theorizing throughout the book. He includes a quote by Leah Libresco Sargeant that sums up the Benedict Option as “just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care” (142). What is this small-c church? What is it “supposed to be?” In the context of Dreher’s ecumenical approach, we cannot say with any degree of certainty. Or consider Dreher’s defense of Evangelicals adopting “traditional liturgies” (what could that possibly mean in such a context?) on pages 112-13, where he seems to suggest that Protestants can have “communion with the Lord in Word and Sacrament” while remaining Protestant (I leave aside the question of the “Dutch Touch,” which is its own kettle of fish) (112-13).
Now we are confronted with a much deeper problem. Ecclesiology is always inseparable from sacramentology.
The Benedict Option is insufficiently sacramental. The trouble begins early on. Take this line from chapter one:
[Moralistic Therapeutic Deism] has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends suffering—the Way of the Cross—as the pathway to God. (10-11).
What’s absent from this list? The sacraments, and above all, the Eucharist. Indeed, the Blessed Sacrament does not enter the text until page 24, in the second chapter, when Dreher describes the worldview of the Middle Ages; Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, however, goes unmentioned (24). Nor does the Mass appear in Dreher’s chapter-long profile of the Monks of Norcia. These monks gained fame in the Catholic world first and foremost by their loving devotion to the solemn celebration of the traditional Mass. Why would Dreher omit the most important feature of their common life?
The Eucharist hardly plays any role in the entire book except for an extended section in chapter five, where Dreher argues that “contemporary Christians” should “Recover Liturgy” (105). No argument from me there. Insofar as Dreher is working against the “strange fire” of light shows, projection screens, and a whole range of modern instruments from guitars to tambourines, he has my undivided sympathy. He also makes a good point about the need for reverence at the liturgy, even going so far as to state that
Jesus is just as present in the Eucharist at Our Lady of Pizza Hut as at St. Patrick’s. Chances are, though, that you had to work harder to conjure a sense of the true holiness of the mass in the suburban church than in the cathedral. (106).
What a refreshing dose of sacramental realism! Finally, on page 106, we hear the sweet truth that Christ is really present among us in the Sacrament of the Altar. A few pages later, he adds this exquisite paragraph:
The contemporary Reformed theologian Hans Boersma identifies the loss of sacramentality as the key reason why the modern church is falling apart. If there is no real participation in the eternal—that is, if we do not regard matter, and even time itself, as rooted firmly in God’s being—then the life of the church can scarcely withstand the torrents of liquid modernity. (108).
That passage contains the germ of what should have been the book’s central thesis, that a return to reverent sacramentality, and to the Eucharistic Christ in particular, will be our salvation. Even from a (very well respected) Reformed theologian, this insight is nearer to the truth than a good quarter of the book.
Similarly, Dreher hits the right note when he says:
All worship is in some sense liturgical, but liturgies that are sacramental both reflect Christ’s presence in the divine order and embody it in a concrete form accessible to worshipers. (108).
Bravo! If he had kept on sounding this note through to the end of the chapter, I would have applauded the whole way. Instead, he continues:
Liturgy is not magic, of course, but if it is intended and received sacramentally, it awakens the sense that worshipers are communing with the eternal, transcendent realm through the ritual and its elements. The liturgy feeds the sacramental imagination, reweaving the connection between body and spirit. (108).
The phrase “intended and received sacramentally” is a bit too vague for comfort. Who intends and receives the sacrament? By what authority do they intend and receive: the legitimate successors of the Apostles, or scripture alone? We see again the intimate connection between sacramentology and ecclesiology. Dreher’s words mean and imply very different things to Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant readers. His stylistic imprecision speaks to deeper theological vagaries.
What’s more, Dreher ought to know better. He has read Benedict XVI. He knows that “the Eucharist makes the Church.” One of the leading thinkers of his own communion, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, has built his entire career on the careful elucidation of a similarly Eucharistic ecclesiology. Theologians like the Armenian Orthodox Vigen Guroian and the Roman Catholic Bill Cavanaugh, though disagreeing in some important respects, nevertheless come together on this point. Their insights suggest that the very essence of the Church is bound up with the Eucharist. And if they are correct, it troubles Dreher’s entire approach to ecumenism and the liturgy.
Dreher includes unavoidably non-sacramental communities in his project in the name of ecumenism and (probably) book sales. After all, he goes so far as to state outright, “It is beyond the scope of this book to tell other Christians how they should celebrate their liturgies while still being faithful to their theological tradition,” even if that means omitting central dogmas of the Faith (112). So, what does Dreher do instead? He pivots to James K. A. Smith’s philosophy of “cultural liturgies,” an anthropologically useful concept. Dreher takes it up as his main way of selling liturgy to Evangelicals.
Unfortunately, in Dreher’s hands, the idea of “cultural liturgies” becomes a force for the very relativism he is attempting to combat (incidentally, Smith has since disavowed The Benedict Option). In Dreher’s telling, the liturgy is primarily a good thing because of what it does to us. While no serious Catholic or Orthodox theologian can deny that the liturgy is the preeminent means by which we are divinized, Dreher’s liturgical model is overly anthropocentric. It is—dare I say it?—strikingly emotivist and subjectivist. He places his emphasis on the way repetition and chanting and incense and community can orient our desires towards the life of transcendent order. Dreher instrumentalizes the Mass to an unhealthy degree. In a strikingly Maurassian note, he seems to think that “the form worship takes” matters primarily because it can “[build] a bulwark against” modernity (113). Once again, he writes that in a good liturgy, “worshipers are communing with the eternal, transcendent realm through the ritual and its elements” (108).
The reduction of the liturgy to quasi-Confucian social theurgy is a scandal. Nowhere do we read that, even if none but the priest were there, the Mass would still be the holiest and most important ceremony on earth. Nowhere do we read of Christ’s holy sacrifice made present in the Mass, nor of the way the liturgy opens up the eschaton to mere mortal worshipers. Nowhere do we even find the words “Real Presence,” itself originally a Lutheran formulation that has since gained ground among Catholics and Orthodox. There is no need to get overly academic with any of this. Much of it already fits well with the social science he is trying to use. But in failing to rise above his own anthropological method, Dreher likewise fails to do justice to his subject.
The result? Dreher protestantizes the Mass. But not in the way that Luther or Cranmer or even Calvin might, those men who thought well and hard about God’s work in our worship. Dreher aims lower. He writes, “liturgy is primarily, though not exclusively, about what God has to say to us” (108). To be precise, no, it is not. Liturgy is primarily about what God does to us through the Eucharist. We do not go to Mass just to learn, though that is one of its most important benefits. We go to Mass to offer the sacrifice of Christ and to receive God’s supernatural life in the Blessed Sacrament. Dreher’s pedagogical model is not wrong in itself, but without a robust sacramental realism, it devolves into Zwinglianism. Liturgy is a tool for preserving “cultural memory,” not a point of real contact with the Living and Ineffable God (109). Dreher writes, “Along with helping us remember Christ, liturgy also reminds us that Christianity isn’t just a philosophy but a way of life that demands everything” (109-10). Not wrong, just banal.
Dreher follows it up with, a few pages later, “We are supposed to feel that gathering in a church as a community to offer worship to our God is something set apart from ordinary life. This is what gives rich liturgies their power” (113). Did Dom Anthony Ruff ghost-write this passage? Christ the priest and victim is what—or rather, who—gives rich liturgies their power. The actions of the congregation are entirely secondary. That’s part of the reason that there are no rubrics for those hearing the Mass.
None of these problematic statements compare to a paragraph towards the end of his section on recovering liturgy:
Now, low-church Evangelicals are absolutely right to say that liturgy won’t save you. Only conversion of heart will. Liturgy is necessary for worship to do what it must do to fulfill its potential, but liturgy alone is not sufficient, for the same reason a Bach concerto performance means nothing to a deaf man. If a believer’s body is worshiping but his mind and body are elsewhere, what good does that do? The goal is to integrate all parts of the Christian person. It takes faith and reason to form and disciple a Christian. (113).
The first two sentences are perilously close to explicit heresy (specifically, Donatism). The Tradition of the undivided Church tells us that indeed we are saved by liturgy, because we are saved by the Eucharistic Christ’s cosmic and eternal liturgy. If Dreher meant that a mortal sinner cannot receive the sacrament without committing sacrilege, then he would be correct. But he doesn’t describe sin in the rest of the paragraph. He describes ordinary distraction—venially sinful at most. Dreher seems to suggest that our own disposition is more important than the objective work of the Trinity in the Sacrament. A great deal more precision would have been tremendously helpful.
I need not appeal to Catholic dogma to hold Dreher accountable for his shoddy sacramentology. Dreher, after all, is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. And by the standards of his own communion, Dreher’s book is very clearly heretical. It is impossible to imagine a serious Orthodox thinker endorsing any of the incoherent liturgical propositions that Dreher puts forward. We can also see the fissure between Dreher and his own tradition when it comes to his ecumenism.
The Orthodox are far more jealous of doctrinal purity than us Catholics. They are even canonically forbidden from praying with heretics. That protective tendency is one of their more admirable traits, although it has exerted a heavy price—the nearly 1000-year schism that has separated the Christian East and West. Consider the words of Mark of Ephesus, who scuppered a scheme of reunion at the Council of Florence (AD 1438-45) by his outspoken criticism. Here are just a few of his ecumenical gems:
“The Latins are not only schismatics but heretics…we did not separate from them for any other reason other than the fact that they are heretics. This is precisely why we must not unite with them unless they dismiss the addition from the Creed filioque and confess the Creed as we do.”
“It is impossible to recall peace without dissolving the cause of the schism—the primacy of the Pope exalting himself equal to God.”
“The Symbol of the Faith must be preserved inviolate, as at its origin. Since all the holy doctors of the Church, all the Councils and all the Scriptures put us on our guard against heterodoxy, how dare I, in spite of these authorities, follow those who urge us to unity in a deceitful semblance of union—those who have corrupted the holy and divine Symbol of Faith and brought in the Son as second cause of the Holy Spirit.”
A model of Dreher-style ecumenical engagement, he is not. Consider a more recent example, such as the widely revered monks of Mount Athos. The recently canonized Elder Paisios, one of the Holy Mountain’s more famous residents of the late twentieth century, once said,
There’s no need for us to tell Christians who aren’t Orthodox that they’re going to hell or that they’re antichrists; but we also mustn’t tell them that they’ll be saved, because that’s giving them false reassurances, and we’ll be judged for it. We have to give them a good kind of uneasiness – we have to tell them that they’re in error.
And, along with most of the other monks on Mount Athos, Elder Paisios stopped remembering the Patriarch at the Divine Liturgy due to the latter’s perceived “dangerous overtures” to Rome.
That’s not to say that I agree with Mark of Ephesus, Elder Paisios, or the Athonites. I think all of them are dead wrong. My point in bringing them up is merely to note that Dreher’s approach looks mighty strange through the lens of his own tradition. Perhaps that’s why there are so few references to Eastern Orthodoxy, both in the sub-chapter on the liturgy and in the text more widely.
Eastern Christian spirituality is full of riches. My own study of authors like Metropolitan John Zizioulas, Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov, and Vladimir Lossky was a major turning point in my theological and spiritual journey. I date the start of my conversion to my first encounter with iconography at an Orthodox monastery deep in Transylvania. I have repeatedly found the simple wisdom of the startsy a useful corrective to my own selfishness and pride. And the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is a truly beautiful act of the Apostolic Church at prayer.
The thing is, I suspect that Dreher would probably say much the same, too. But he doesn’t. With the exception of one reference to Father Alexander Schmemann quite late in the book, Dreher mostly brings up Eastern Orthodoxy in anecdotes describing his own faith journey. I found the absence of Eastern Orthodoxy in the book more broadly to be a particular disappointment. If there are faith communities that have dealt with cultural hostility, surely they are the Eastern churches. Observe the Greeks and Armenians under Ottoman and Turkish rule, or the Russians suffering the yoke of Communism. Why doesn’t he mention these examples? They seem directly pertinent to his project.
Dreher also explicitly references another Orthodox figure, one who proves that, at the end of the day, his ecumenical vision is just as incoherent as his historical narrative and his liturgical theology. On page 136, in chapter six, we read the following passage:
Times have changed, and so have some of the issues conservative Evangelicals and Catholics face. But the need for an ecumenism of the trenches is stronger than ever…To be sure, the different churches should not compromise their distinct doctrines, but they should nevertheless seize every opportunity to form friendships and strategic alliances in defense of the faith and the faithful. (136).
So far, so good. Here, Dreher is at his ecumenical best. He recognizes the strategic nature of ecumenism, doesn’t try to confound sacramentally distinct boundaries, and orients the reader towards positive cooperation. What a welcome volte-face from chapter five.
The problem, however, lies in that ellipsis. Because in between these two passages, Dreher inserts a toxic little sentence:
Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a senior bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church, has on several occasions appealed to traditionalists in the West to form a “common front” against atheism and secularism. (136).
The sheer audacity.
With one sentence, Dreher undermines the actual goodwill that his muddled and misbegotten ecumenical effort might have borne out among informed Catholics. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev is one of the great persecutors of the Church today, a man who has repeatedly, mendaciously, and viciously attacked the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, even at the Vatican itself. His lies in the service of the Moscow Patriarchate’s power plays disqualify him as any kind of ecumenical model. Dreher knows this, has commented on it before, and yet still saw fit to include that sentence in the final draft of his book. I consider it the one truly unconscionable sentence in the entire text, and it makes all of his ecumenical platitudes ring hollow.
The Benedict Option inadvertently manages to present us with a model of ecumenism that, on the one hand, would be anathematized by the Hyperdox, and on the other, cites one of the most rhetorically violent Orthodox partisans in the official dialogue today. The result is an unsatisfactory and unsacramental chimera, a quasi-church, not the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Body of Christ.
My final criticism of Dreher is, I hope, both less pedantic and less denominational than my previous two points. I recognize that the issues I have brought up may not seem so terrible to those who a) aren’t Catholic or Orthodox, or b) don’t particularly know or care all that much about intellectual and church history. These are very specific criticisms that, I acknowledge, may run the risk of asking too much of a book written for the popular press.
But there is a third problem, and it lies with the book’s ethos.
Every volume of cultural criticism is, by its very nature, critical. It would be unreasonable to look at a book like The Benedict Option and expect to see all kittens and rosebuds, particularly in our polemical climate. But Christians who engage in cultural criticism bear special responsibilities. Particularly if they make it their business to preach and prophesy.
First and foremost, they must speak the truth. Leaving aside the nuance issues I’ve already identified, I think Dreher is pretty good about this. He constantly slips into the confessional mode, which insures the appearance of honesty. I don’t think anyone but the most suspicious reader could walk away from the book feeling hoodwinked. The Benedict Option is, if nothing else, a compendium of Rod Dreher’s honest assessments.
A Christian cultural critic, however, must also try his damnedest to persevere in charity. He fails, and fails scandalously, if he lapses into despair.
Now, there are two relevant kinds of despair. The first is a despair of one’s own cause, a kind of bleak, Spenglerian pessimism and bellyaching. Dreher has no problems with this attitude. At his most poetic moments, he is able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. His conclusion includes a few masterfully hopeful passages.
But then there’s a far more subtle and far more tempting despair, the despair over the salvation of one’s enemies. Our culture and our political system have gone mad on this kind of despair. It polarizes and dehumanizes. Why? Because ultimately, it is a despair of God’s mercy.
Dreher is guilty of precisely this kind of despair.
He paints a neo-noir landscape in black and white. Unlike the world that you and I inhabit, it is merely the stage for a Manichaean spiritual and cultural drama. The villains of Dreher’s narrative are not individuals with souls in need of salvation, but dark and impersonal forces closing in on a haggard band of True Believers. The most important of these demonic forces is the LGBT movement. Dreher returns to it ad nauseum. No other threat to mankind, the West, or the Church—not war, not Jihad, not environmental collapse, not racism, not economic downturn, not secularism as such, not consumerism, not Transhumanism, not euthanasia, not even abortion—occupies such a shadowy and potent throne in Dreher’s imagination. Everywhere looms the deadly threat of the Great Gay Menace.
Yet there are aspects of his rhetoric that leave a deep unease. “The LGBT agenda” is a phrase that appears on the third page of the first chapter, and the prominence given to same-sex relations reinforces the common perception that the only ethical issues that interest traditional Christians are those involving sexual matters. In recent interviews, Dreher has been rather less vocally negative about same-sex relations in general than he seems to be in this book, but the phraseology (as in the derogatory use of “transgenderism”), here and elsewhere, sounds a note of angry anxiety and contempt typical of some voices prominent in conservative American religious circles, and somehow jarring with the commendation of Benedictine hospitality and equanimity.
Indeed, some of Dreher’s liberal interlocutors have written potent criticisms on just this point. Alan Levinovitz calls The Benedict Option, as well as Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes, “spiritual pornography,” which he defines as literature that is
…designed to arouse climactic cries of Yes! Yes! in its readers, pleasing the soul’s darker parts by swapping a hollow fantasy of physical union for an equally hollow fantasy of moral warfare…a virtuous few battling mightily against everyone else…Calling spiritual pornography a fantasy helps to evoke its psychological appeal, but the world it conjures up is closer to that of the fairy tale. Both genres are built on two foundational features: dramatic arcs that proceed from Order to Disorder to Order, and clearly defined roles and rules that map neatly onto good and evil. It’s a world that trades humans for archetypes, nuance for simplicity, and the tangled skein of history for the orderly vectors of myth — but if you’re on the side of the angels, living in it feels really, really good.
I won’t go so far as Levinovitz, whose own polemical rhetoric has bordered on the illiberal in the past. What Levinovitz does capture, however, is Dreher’s sometimes hysterical distress over LGBT activism and liberal modernity generally. Levinovitz argues that “the soul of these books is not love of God; it is bitter loathing of those who do not share it.” He isn’t far off the mark.
But liberals who write off Dreher as nothing more than a cantankerous homophobe are doing him and the text a great injustice. To understand Dreher’s approach, we also need to look at one of his better moments. Late in the book, Dreher includes a profile of Spiritual Friendship, and specifically Ron Belgau. Some of what he writes about the experience of gay and lesbian Christians attempting to live a life of chastity is genuinely empathetic. Dreher wouldn’t have bothered to include their inspiring ascetic example if he had some lurking bigotry. Dreher isn’t a homophobe. By all accounts, he never advocates for any hatred or fear of individual LGBT people.
What he does fear—or, more precisely, what the book fears—is all LGBT people and all liberals in the abstract. This fear entails a convenient rhetorical move. It lets Dreher confound and occlude the individual personhood of his ideological opponents in such a way that it is easier to consign them to the outer darkness en masse. For if they are not out there, then it will be us, the few, the faithful. Here we can see the ripple of dread that runs through the text.
For instance, Dreher writes that “we in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it” (17). At one point in the book, Dreher calls the LGBT movement “the tip of the spear at our throats in the culture war” (alas, I could not find the page, so I offer you the quote via David Brooks’s review in the New York Times). Dreher suggests that
In the wake of Obergefell, Christian beliefs about the sexual complementarity of marriage are considered to be an abominable prejudice—and in a growing number of cases, punishable. The public square has been lost. (9).
He also writes,
…the day is coming when the kind of thing that happened to Christian bakers, florists, and wedding photographers will be much more widespread. And many of us are not prepared to suffer deprivation for our faith. (63).
Or this passage in his chapter on Christian labor:
We may not (yet) be at the point where Christians are forbidden to buy and sell in general without state approval [!!!], but we are on the brink of entire areas of commercial and professional life being off-limits to believers whose consciences will not allow them to burn incense to the gods of our age. (179).
Followed up shortly by the statement that “the only thing standing between an employer or employee and a court action is the imagination of LGBT plaintiffs and their lawyers”(181).
The reader can make his or her own judgment about these words. For my own part, I consider Dreher’s contempt a profound, if understandable, failure of Christian charity. At Easter, his own Church sings, “Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection.” That spirit never enters into The Benedict Option in any sustained way. Others have discerned in it a lack of Benedictine hospitality. Levinovitz finds in it a certain resemblance to Jack Chick’s tracts. That’s probably unfair. Dreher’s contempt isn’t sectarian or vicious enough.
The book shares far more important affinities with Atlas Shrugged.
In both, we read of a few stalwarts fending off the gathering darkness of cartoonish, straw-man villains. In both, we encounter a worldview that is increasingly binary, predicated not on the messiness of actual reality but on the black and white imperatives of abstraction. In both, the heroes must enter some kind of retreat (is there any literary analogy to your unfriendly local “Benedict Option community” so apropos as Galt’s Gulch?). In both, we get the sense that the author is entirely self-assured of their own rectitude. And in both, we find the same attitude of contempt for the world, an attitude that is, to borrow the words of Nostra aetate, “foreign to the mind of Christ.”
When Whittaker Chambers famously reviewed Atlas Shrugged for National Review, he wrote that,
Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber–go!”
He wasn’t wrong. John Galt declares,
All the men who have vanished, the men you hated, yet dreaded to lose, it is I who have taken them away from you. Do not attempt to find us. We do not choose to be found. Do not cry that it is our duty to serve you. We do not recognize such duty. Do not cry that you need us. We do not consider need a claim. Do not cry that you own us. You don’t. Do not beg us to return. We are on strike, we, the men of the mind. (For the New Intellectual 131).
At its worst, this is what the Benedict Option becomes. If there are communities that seek to build on Dreher’s more positive and productive suggestions, I wish them well. But I also pray that they leave aside his own venom. It is the final, toxic fruit of forgetting the Eucharistic love of Christ.
I hope to explore my own propositions in my next post. The Church does furnish an excellent example of a saint who dealt with cultural conditions much like our own. I, too, have an “option” I’d like to offer for your consideration, one which is congruent with some parts of Dreher’s book. I’d also like to correct what I see as some of the problems of The Benedict Option.
But not without an important acknowledgement first.
In her review of The Benedict Option, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig points out the fundamental cultural flaw in Dreher’s project; we have been irrevocably formed by modernity. She observes,
There never will be another Medieval subject. All of us in the Anglophone world see with liberal eyes and hear with liberal ears, and to some degree think with liberal minds: Indeed, the lament that we’re no longer Medieval is a comically typical liberal refrain (think of the Romantics, with their Gothic revivalism, or the pre-Raphaelites, with their knights in shining armor). The will to be Medieval subjects again is the desire to return to an age of faith, but this is not an option.
I think it is perhaps this quality that, to paraphrase the remark of a friend, makes The Benedict Option such a great call to conversation and such a poor call to conversion. But it was also, for me, a serious cause for introspection.
And I have to thank Rod Dreher for that.
Reading and reflecting on The Benedict Option made me confront several of the pretensions that I have carried around for a very long time: my ostensible anti-modernism, my belief in the fundamental importance of community, my traditionalism. It didn’t cause me to abandon them all, per se, but to see their limits, refracted and magnified through Dreher’s problematic project.
The Benedict Option helped me realize that I don’t really think the world was better before modernity. Every age has been full of tyrants and heretics, massacres and miracles, heroes and hysteria. No epoch is ever really better than any of the others, for what one may lose, another may gain in some unforeseen way. Human nature remains the same. Only the Incarnation of Christ marked a real departure, an intervention that radically transfigured the course of history.
But since then, God graciously allows us to live with our own cultural era’s particular troubles for reasons that remain cloaked in mystery. Perhaps we are meant to “Redeem the time.” The secret animating principle of history is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Let us trust in Providence. If we are given this moment, with all of its challenges, then let us praise God for that gift.
I am a creature of modernity. If you are reading this, so are you. That is an unavoidable fact. As T.S. Eliot writes of the Christian relationship with history,
It is not to ring the bell backward
Nor is it an incantation
To summon the spectre of a Rose.
We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
(“Little Gidding” III).
It is for these reasons that I cannot go where Dreher goes. I’ll admit, finding “The point of intersection of the timeless/With time” is always difficult. But let us never fear! “This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice therein” (Psalm 118: 24 DRA). With the Eucharist in our midst, we can and must live “for the life of the world” (John 6:52 DRA). Only by cleaving to the Eucharistic Christ can we fulfill our duty to be “the Word within/The world and for the world,” in the words of T.S. Eliot. Let us learn to love the world—tragic, sinful, broken though it may be—at the foot of the Eucharistic God. We can never love it more than He does.
Flannery O’Connor’s name is synonymous with the American short story tradition. What sets her apart from her peers, besides her mastery of plot and her succinct, grotesque style, is the deep concern for issues of faith and grace that animates all of her stories. As O’Connor once put it, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.” There is a certain delicious cruelty to her work. The nasty fates she metes out to children, let alone the adults who deserve what they get, rank her with the best of the gothic writers (and a humorous one at that—we can only imagine the hysterical laughter that something like Der Struwwelpeter would have provoked in her).
Yet O’Connor never show us violence for its own sake, nor for mere moralizing, nor as a ploy for cheap entertainment. Violence is the only outlet for grace in a fallen, “Christ-haunted” world. Her pages are choked and sodden with the precious blood that flows from the Cross.
It is a commonplace among critics that O’Connor’s writing is deeply sacramental. But to my knowledge, no author who has made that claim has also tried to find the fullness of the sacramental system present in her work.
I maintain that all seven sacraments appear in her fiction under different guises. Very often, we are given only implicit or twisted versions. It is common in O’Connor’s dark narratives to find flashes of grace in the inverse of sacraments; the truth emerges through its own negation—hence her heavy use of violence. But all seven are all there, for those who “hath ears to hear” (Matt. 13:9 KJV).
In giving short descriptions of the following stories, my effort is not to justify my choices so much as to provoke further reading. As such, I will keep my descriptions succinct and relatively spoiler-free. Those who have read them may be able to see where I’m coming from. Those who haven’t—here’s some summer reading for you.
This is one of O’Connor’s more overtly sacramental stories. The young son of irreligious parents accidentally gets himself baptized by a preacher in a Southern river—with lethal consequences.
Honorable mention: The Violent Bear It Away. O’Connor thought about baptism a lot, probably because, as a rite of initiation, it is so centrally connected with questions of faith.
Confirmation—“The Enduring Chill”
A sick and snobbish intellectual. A garrulous Jesuit. An overt reference to “A Simple Life” by Flaubert. Sometimes, the descent of the Holy Spirit doesn’t feel quite the way we expect.
Eucharist—“A Temple of the Holy Ghost”
The only short story I know by any author that quotes the Tantum Ergo at length. There’s a good example of the “Red, Eucharistic Sun” motif that O’Connor was so fond of using. And lovers of the weird O’Connor will find her incarnational vision at a particularly grotesque note in this story.
The thinkpiece that uses “Temple” to discuss contemporary gender identity issues, sadly, has yet to be written.
Confession—“The Lame Shall Enter First”
At one point, the liberal main character’s office is compared to a confessional. In confession, however, you hope that a good priest will comfort those who need comfort and afflict those who need affliction, for the edification and sanctification of all. Not so in Sheppard’s benevolently atheist bubble.
In this remarkable narrative, one of O’Connor’s most Catholic stories, we read the story of a marriage broken apart by a dramatically visible expression of extraordinary grace. Theological and moral Puritans won’t be pleased by the implications.
Holy Orders—Wise Blood
What happens when you really, really, really don’t want to accept your vocation? You end up like Hazel Motes, and chase after a “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.” The last chapter can be read as a meditation on the Imago Dei.
Unction—“A Good Man is Hard to Find”
If only for that incredible, climactic line spoken by the Misfit, “She would of been a good woman…”
I may try to expand this list into a real academic work some day. For now, take this list for what it is—a few reading suggestions for those of you who, like me, enjoy O’Connor, Southern Lit generally, and Catholicism.
Lots of peacocks.
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.
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.
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).
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 Hours—which, 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.
Of course, I could also emphasize the importance of Oxford in general as a center of Catholicism—Roman 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.
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.
As a student of the University of Virginia, I have been bombarded with official propaganda about the history of the Great Men (and, much later, Women) who “wore the honors of Honor.” Poe in particular is a favorite example, and certain elements of UVA culture such as the Jefferson and Raven Societies are suffused with the memory of his presence. We even commemorate him by setting apart a room on the West Range which we claim, without proper evidence, to be his. No matter. The great poet did live in the Academical Village before he dropped out, and he’s too important a figure not to use in a marketing ploy. The presence of William Faulkner is more understated, though an outstanding exhibition currently on offer at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library is correcting that imbalance. So, too, members of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society recall fondly that he accepted honorary membership of their esteemed organization, once delivering an address with John Dos Passos in attendance.
I might also add, for those who enjoy fine beverages, that Faulkner’s grandson owns and runs a superlative small winery on the outskirts of town. The resemblance is uncanny.
But one author who left his footprints on Mr. Jefferson’s Grounds has gone sadly unnoticed by the vast majority of students. That man is Julien Green. I imagine that, if I were to ask any passing student about Julien Green, they would have no idea who he was. Yet in his own day, he was a major player in the French literary scene, interacting with such characters as André Gide, Jacques Maritain, Lucien Daudet, Gertrude Stein, Georges Bernanos, and many more. He even reached the pinnacle of literary achievement in France, eventually becoming the first American ever elected to the Académie française.
This oversight becomes more egregious in that, unlike Poe and Faulkner, Green wrote prolifically about his time at UVA. Indeed, he even set one of his novels at the University—including a scene in front of a specific Lawn Room, 34 East. In the same book, he gives one of the most beautiful descriptions of the old Rotunda library that I have read; it still makes me proud to be a student at UVA, although the building has changed radically since that age. I am sure that in the years to come, I will return to that passage with no small dose of nostalgia.
The scion of two old Southern families—one from Georgia, one from Virginia—Green was born in Paris in 1900. He spent his youth hearing stories of the old Confederacy, which his mother romanticized incessantly. After World War I broke out, he served in both the American Red Cross and the French Army. When the fighting finished, he shipped off to college in the United States, a land he had never before seen.
Green was a student at the University from 1919-1921. By all accounts, he did not enjoy his time in Charlottesville. He was a remarkably proficient student, able to complete all of his academic duties by ten before spending the rest of the day with his books in the Rotunda. He was particularly fond of The Critique of Pure Reason. As a teenage convert to Catholicism, Green also felt alienated from his WASP peers. The University had no Catholic chaplaincy, so he had to trudge all the way down into the city to the rickety wooden mission parish (now Holy Comforter).
Anti-Catholicism wasn’t the only religious prejudice that infected the University’s culture. Green muddled through an independent study of Hebrew with a noticeably unpopular, albeit good-humored, Jewish student whom he calls “Drabkin.” Antisemitism must have been an entrenched, unquestioned part of student life then. Green was not an antisemite, and he would later return to the language after many years. In his later life, he relished the texts of the Old Testament (Diary 1928-1957 65-66).
Virginia students will recognize certain eternal experiences that Green records in the third volume of his Autobiography, entitled Love in America (the cover shows the Rotunda from University Avenue). He likely lived in the block where Boylan, Fig, and Mellow Mushroom stand now, though possibly as far as Wertland. He describes a scene in his boarding house, which gave him a view “over the main avenue which led to the University, as well as the bridge across which the express train would rumble four or five times a day” (Love in America 71). Later, he moved to a house at the end of Chancellor Street, owned by an old woman named Ms. Mildred Stewart (Love in America 172-73).
While in Charlottesville, he admired the University’s physical beauty, writing,
Life at University was slow to start again, for no one was ever in a hurry there, but by the end of the first week classes were full once more, and students yawned in the pleasant September weather. At Cabell Hall, the scent of honeysuckle hung over each window casement, and in the hall the plastercast of Hermes in all his majestic immodesty rose above the heads of the boys who walked past the level of his knees. (Love in America 131).
Evidently Old Cabell, before it was “Old,” had a few classical (nude) statues positioned around the staircases. One can only imagine what Green would think of the beautiful but controversial mural that now adorns its walls. He did go to attend convocation and other functions in its concert hall, where even then a large reproduction of “The School of Athens” graced the stage (Love in America 133).
And of course, he writes about the Rotunda. In 1937, Green was back in Charlottesville. In his Diary, we read that he would often ponder whether Poe studied at the same tables in the same “old library,” i.e. the Rotunda (72). As I mentioned earlier, Green would go on to compose one of the best literary depictions of the Rotunda in his 1950 novel, Moira:
A few minutes later he was mounting the library steps and pushing open the heavy door…The warmth of the large, round room was pleasant and he stood there for a few seconds, his face relaxing. Finally he took off his overcoat and looked for a table, but the best places were taken. Everywhere there were students reading, or snoozing, overcome by the warmth under the great dome. In the silence he heard the hissing of the radiators. Joseph walked almost right round the library on tiptoe before he found a place behind a great pile of overcoats and scarves on a table. With a sigh of weariness he sank into an armchair…How comfortable it was! A delicious warmth flowed into his hands, his legs, all through his body. With his elbows on his legs, he linked his fingers over his stomach and looked curiously out of the window. Everything was hidden in snow. The tips of the magnolia leaves near the library could just be seen like black tongues. The little brick path had been cleared. Joseph had often heard it said that nothing ever changed at the University, but this morning, for the first time, he felt a sort of gratitude for everything that did not alter. Generations of young men had sat there in that corner and, like him, looked out over the little brick path. In the spring and autumn the wistaria hung all over the arch on the right. This morning the snow allowed only a few black and twisted branches to be seen, but there would be wistaria again. The snow would melt, but under the snow were all those dead leaves…(Moira 221-22).
Green certainly based the scene on his own recollections. The Rotunda was one of the very few places where he could be happy, alone among the quiet genius of dead men. In his Autobiography, he calls it a “pink Pantheon” and tells us,
If I looked to the left, I could see the curves of Houdon’s bronze bust of Washington. To the right were the clumps of laurel trees, still green after the first snows. Like those who frequent certain cafes, I had my particular place, my preferred alcove. What dreams did I not drift into there? (Love in America 57-58).
He spent time on the Lawn, a place that would hold tremendous personal meaning for him, as we shall see. Green writes of the Lawnies and their rooms,
These privileged individuals did not live just anywhere. On either side of the long lawn, built into the brick walls, there were the dark green doors [they are red today] that I mentioned before, each with its brass number and frame that held a visiting card. Once one had gained access through one of these doors, you found yourself in a sort of cell. Daylight came in through a sash window and in cold weather the room was heated by lumps of coal which smoked in the fireplace, exactly as in English Universities…The obligatory rocking-chair could be seen in one corner, but when the weather was fine, one dragged it outside on the Lawn and studied beneath the trees [I and many others have continued this tradition]. These two galleries which faced each other were known as East Range and West Range [I have no explanation for why Green would write this, except that perhaps all the rooms in the Academical Village were once called by the title now only given to those that face away from the Lawn]. I never think of them without sadness after so many years. I little knew how much pain awaited me there. (Love in America 55).
There are other similarities between his time and ours. Green knew the irritation of construction, as he was there for the start of work on the Amphitheater (Love in America 194). He went to something very much like Foxfield: “One day, I was taken to the races at Warrenton in the north of Virginia. Everyone in the South knew Warrenton. Once a year, the races took place there and people came from all around” (Love in America 125). He published a story in one of the University magazines, Virginia Quarterly (Love in America 168). He even read The Yellow Journal, which he describes in the following terms:
…little more than a scandal sheet, designed to make people laugh. All sorts of personal insinuations were made, but in such a way that those who complained only did harm to themselves. The editors were diabolically cunning [still absolutely true]. People tolerated The Yellow Journal with good humor that occasionally turned to anger, for people were terrified of appearing in it. (Love in America 191).
He took History classes in the Rotunda under a Professor Dabney, very probably the Richard Heath Dabney who gave his name to one of the Old Dorms (Love in America 170). In one of the more humorous points of the Autobiography, Green tells us that the fervently Protestant Dabney, having heard that there was a devout Catholic student in his lecture, went out of his way to emphasize the depredations of Romanism. Many years later, when Dabney learned that Green had become a novelist and not a priest, he is reported to have said, “Anyway, it’s due to me that he remained a layman” (Love in America 170-71). There is also an extremely amusing episode in his Autobiography in which Green is hit up for donations to President Alderman’s funding drive.
One evening, as I was studying in my room by the light of the oil lamp…the door was pushed open and I saw two large boys whose build suggested they played football…
“Good evening,” said one of them. “Are you Green, Julian Green?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Do you love this University?”
“Of course he loves it,” said the other. “It’s his Alma Mater. So you’re going to give a nice present to your Alma Mater, a present of one dollar, and then you will sign there,” he added, placing a printed card before me.
I read it without knowing what it said. “I don’t understand,” I said.
“That doesn’t matter. Just give a dollar like a gentleman.”
I gave them a dollar.
“Good. The rest is merely a formality. You commit yourself to paying two dollars every year.”
“For how long?”
“Until the Lord calls you to him…There, do you see this dotted line? That’s where you sign, like a true Virginian gentleman. Otherwise…”
“Otherwise the University will realize it has been mistaken about you.”
“Good evening,” they said as they left. “It’s been a pleasure chatting to you.”
(Love in America 159-60).
Did someone mention the Class Giving Campaign? (I kid..I kid…)
Yet at the end of the day, Green’s experience at the University cannot be described as all that similar to our own. He records things as they once were, and are no more. On the occasion of a return trip in 1933, he writes,
At the University. She is the same as ever, cordial with that shade of disdain that gives her so much charm. Her vast lawns bordered by Greek Revival columns reflect a peaceful soul, perfectly satisfied with herself. You call on her, a hand is extended with a smile. If you turn away from her, if the whole of America forsook her at the foot of her hills, she would none the less pursue her quiet dream, adorned with classical literature, white frontages, black foliage. From North to South, what could there be for her to envy? Isn’t she Mr. Jefferson’s daughter? (Diary: 1928-1957 47).
This romantic depiction of the University overlooks several of the very real problems, particularly racial ones (“white frontages, black foliage”), that plagued the University and the South at that time. And certainly, no one living in Charlottesville today could seriously write about UVA like this. It’s too large and worldly, and we all have a much clearer sense of collective sin than Green did. There is a certain literary irony in this blind spot, as Green was deeply indebted to that bard of guilt, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
But Green saw enough changes to realize that the University he remembered at the cusp of the 1920’s no longer existed. When he returned in 1937, he was deeply displeased with President Newcomb’s expansions.
Visited the new buildings, none of which are fine. The old University is intact, but while it used to be surrounded by woods, meadows, and ponds, as in Mr. Jefferson’s time, it now suffocates within a belt of big, commonplace houses. Useless to tell me that the buildings were very expensive, that doesn’t give them any more merit in my eyes. No, what happens to cities and universities is what happens to men: wealth kills something in them that can never again be found or replaced. Now that the University has become one of the big American universities, with a gymnasium the size of a railroad station [Mem Gym], a dormitory as big as a barracks [Old Dorms], etc., it attracts an increasing number of Northern boys, and I find no fault in this, but note that it is hardly any longer a Southern university. Its professors come from all over the country…(Diary: 1928-1957 72-73).
We who have passed our time here in the 21st century, almost a hundred years after Green left, must stifle a chuckle at his somewhat provincial complaint. It’s not hard to imagine what he would make of the Engineering School, Ruffner, New Dorms, Runk, Scott Stadium, Nau-Gibson, or New Cabell…let alone the sprawling monstrosity that is the medical complex. And you will be happy to know that Green could honestly describe Fourteenth Street in the Year of Our Lord 1921 as “rather gloomy” (Love in America 172).
But in addition to religious pressures and the ordinary stresses of student life, Green’s time at the University was deeply unhappy for another reason. It was there that he discovered something about himself that would mark his writing for the rest of life. While studying Latin with Dr. Fitzhugh (almost certainly the namesake of the crummy dorm on Alderman Road), Green had an epiphany.
The day eventually came when Dr. Fitzhugh…coming to a passage of Virgil, made the following speech to us, not a syllable of which have I forgotten:
“Gentlemen, it seems pointless for me to disguise the meaning of this passage: we are dealing here with the shame of Antiquity, by which I mean boy-love.”
These words fell on an extraordinary silence, so much so that when I closed my eyes I believed I was alone in the room…The rapt attention with which everyone listened should have apprised me, had I been capable of reasoning, but I felt so dumbfounded it was as if someone had struck me a violent blow to the head. In a second, I understood a thousand things, except for one which was essential. I realized that the strange passion of which Virgil spoke resided also in me. A blinding flash had clarified my entire life. I was frightened by this revelation which identified me with the young men of Antiquity. So I bore the shame of Antiquity, I alone bore it. Between me and these generations that had disappeared over twenty centuries ago there was this extraordinary link. In the modern world, I was alone because of it. (Love in America 49-50).
Green realized that he was a homosexual. As fellow student Mr. Thaddeus Braxton Woody (“Mr. Woody, may he always be remembered”) would later note, Green was never a very happy student. His shame compounded his sense of isolation. And it would not be long before he fell in love for the first time. That winter, when walking back from Cabell Hall towards the Rotunda, Green spotted a boy who darted past him swiftly, without even a word. It was a coup de foudre. He was totally captivated. Green tells us that, after a spell of motionless awe in what was probably the East Lawn colonnade, he went back to his room and thought, “I love him…I shall have to die” (Love in America 79). Green was “enslaved” to a love that dare not speak its name (Love in America 79). When Green would later write the story of his life, he called the mysterious student “Mark S.,” but revealed that he lived in 34 East Lawn (Love in America 90). Two students lived in that room in the Spring of 1920, so if your curiosity gets the best of you, you are welcome to search the Lawn Resident database to discover their names. It is impossible to know which of the two won Green’s unrequited love.
And it was an entirely un-erotic love at that. Green was spiritually attracted to Mark. He could easily distinguish between the innocent tenderness he felt for Mark and the darker, carnal desires that characterized his thoughts about some of the other students—including Virginius Dabney, son of that zealously Protestant lecturer and later an important scholar and journalist in his own right (Love in America 91, 171-72). Only towards the end of his time at the University did Green ever pluck up the courage to speak to Mark, who welcomed him as a dear friend. He never did grasp the depth of Julien’s affections (Love in America 255-59).
Green never consummated his desires in Charlottesville, but by the time he left, his sexual awakening was more or less complete. He was aided in arriving at this “transformation” of awareness by a similarly-inclined student whom he calls “Nick” in his autobiography. Nick shared stories of his own encounters, introduced Green to the work of Havelock Ellis, and encouraged him to a sexual adventurism that Green was never to take up (inter alia, Love in America 202-04, 209-11, 214, 266).
Any reader of Green’s novels or diaries knows that homosexuality would go on to become one of his constant themes, even when it exists beside more conventional relationships. The memory of that first, innocent love with “Mark” would later fuel the novel he wrote about the University, Moira (1950). Mark appears in the story as “Bruce Praileau,” a handsome Lawnie who shares an unspoken sexual tension with the main character (Moira 15). In fact, most of the male characters in that book correspond to one or two of the figures in the Autobiography, including a Mephistophelean young professor of Classics who introduced Green to the sodomitical poetry of Petronius and Catullus at an evening party (Love in America 240-42). Even beyond Moira, Green’s fiction very often explores issues related to the homosexual experience in the middle of the 20th century.
The energy and complexity of that exploration lies not only in his own relationships, but in his intense spiritual vision. Even in Moira (1950), the main internal conflict takes place between the protagonist’s repressed sexual urges (both for women as well as, implicitly, men) and his zealous, Puritanical religion. His competing fanaticisms eventually erupt into an act of violent destruction, but I won’t spoil the plot for those of you who may wish to read it.
Green’s time at the University transpired at the latter end of his first conversion. He had been received into the Catholic Church as a teenager, during the War. He would later leave the Church after his return to Paris, and spent the better part of two decades in the bohemian lifestyle which so strongly characterized the French literati of that age.
Yet even in this period, he retained a constant belief in God and a devotion to the Bible. In the late 1930’s, he returned to his Catholic faith. He would persist in it, albeit at times imperfectly, for the rest of his life. He broke off sexual relations with men, including his long-time partner and biographer, Robert de Saint Jean (though their emotional and spiritual relationship continued). He hated to be called a Catholic writer, but Green did acknowledge that his works “allow glimpses of great dark stirrings…the deepest part of the soul…the secret regions where God is at work” (Diary: 1928-1957 190). Green went so far as to write a life of St. Francis of Assisi, a saint to whom he always felt a certain inexplicable attraction. One reporter notes that “When asked, tactlessly, how he would like to die, he replied with a curious malicious twinkle in his eyes: ‘In a state of grace.'”
So, why would I title this largely historical post “UVA’s Own Saint?” Because I shamelessly want page views, of course. But also because I believe that Green’s work exhibits a spiritual mastery which is rarely acknowledged. He has been overlooked, I think, in large part because of his homosexuality. Occasionally, even conservative Catholic activists will tip their hats to Green (see Deal Hudson’s “The 100 Best Catholic Novels I Know,” where no fewer than three of Green’s books make the list—or the 1996 Crisis Magazine article on Love in America, written in a tone that differs rather markedly from the journal’s more recent fare. Hudson has long admired Green, and even corresponded with him in the mid-90’s). On the other hand, Spiritual Friendship, a blog that has done so much to change the conversation about homosexuality in the Church while remaining faithful to Catholic orthodoxy, has never really given much thought to Green.
But it would be a colossal mistake to treat Green as a “gay” Catholic writer, as if his work can only speak to the narrow concerns of a minority within the Church. He must not be made a football subject to the ephemeral concerns of the culture warriors. Catholics should pay more attention to him because his spiritual insights speak to the depths of the human condition. What is unique in Green is the way he draws those universal ideas from his own very particular situation. Like St. Augustine in Antiquity, Green perfects the art of discerning the divine meaning of memory. Much of his spiritual vision is concentrated in his personal, autobiographical, and reflective writing. For example:
The Eternal is the most beautiful name that has been given to God. You can think it over until you lose all feeling of the exterior world, and I think that, in a certain manner, it is in in itself a way that leads to God. If we seek what is eternal in the sensuous world, all the manifestations of matter vanish from our sight, what is most solid together with what is most ancient, until we reach the limits of what is imaginable in all possible spheres. When I was still a child, I used to think over occasionally the term for ever and ever that Protestants add at the end of the Pater, and the words finally gave me a sort of mental dizziness, as though by continuing in that direction you would reach something inexpressible, an immense void into which you fell. (Diary: 1928-1957 76).
In this passage, he echoes sentiments that Newman felt and expressed nearly a hundred years earlier in the Apologia, and anticipates several of the key themes that would mark T.S. Eliot’s spiritual poetry. But perhaps more importantly, these words reveal Green’s basically Augustinian orientation, the legacy of both his Calvinist upbringing and his Catholic reading.
That deep longing for happiness, that longing I have in me, as we all have, so much so, for instance, that I can’t listen without melancholy to a bird singing on a too fine summer day in Paris, where does it come from? It is not merely the longing to possess everything, formerly so strong in me; it is a painful and sometimes pleasant nostalgic longing for a happiness too far away in time for our brief memory to retrace it, something like a recollection of the Garden of Eden, but a memory adapted to our weakness. Too much joy would kill us. (Diary: 1928-1957 81)
All the dead are our elders. When a child of ten dies, he is my elder because he knows. (Diary: 1928-1957 124).
As might be expected, he had a particular concern for questions of the human body and the importance of chastity. In his Diary, he often ponders the body’s potential and limits in the spiritual life:
Vice begins where beauty ends. If one analyzed the impression produced by a beautiful body, something approaching religious emotion would be found in it. The work of the Creator is so beautiful that the wish to turn it into an instrument of pleasure comes only after a confused feeling of adoration and wonder. (Diary: 1928-1957 93).
Chastity is the body’s nightmare. The soul is certain of its vocation, but the body’s vocation is physical love. That is its mode of expression, the way it fulfills its part; that is all it thinks, that is all it thinks about. How can you expect it to understand the soul’s care? That body and soul are forcibly wedded is a mystery. The body hates the soul and wants it to die…To remain chaste does not necessarily make a saint of you, but chastity is one of the hallmarks of holiness, and if you wish to be chaste, you also wish to be holy, without daring to admit it, perhaps. (Diary: 1928-1957 203).
Sin occupies a major portion of his attention:
One loses all in losing grace. Many a time have I heard this said, but it is curious to observe that a single sin disenchants the whole of the spiritual world and restores all its power to the carnal world. The atrocious chaos immediately reorganizes itself…A veil stretches over the page. The book is the same, the reader’s soul has grown dark…a single act of contrition is enough for this wretched phantasmagoria to vanish and for the marvelous presence of the invisible to return. A man who has not felt such things does not know one of the greatest happinesses to be had on earth. (Diary: 1928-1957 300).
He had an exceptionally strong sense of the ineffable mystery at the heart of Christianity, drawn in large part from his reading of Scripture:
Faith means walking on waters. Peter himself had begun to sink when Jesus stretched out His hand, reproaching him for doubting. Now, we must believe. In an atheistic world, we have received this exceptional gift. In wind and in darkness, if the ground gives way under our feet like water—and who has not felt this at some time or other?—we must go straight ahead, in spite of all, and grasp the hand that is stretched out to us. (Diary: 1928-1957 273).
It is useless to attempt to get ahead of divine action. Our soul is an abyss into which we vainly peer. We scarcely see anything, but something is happening there—a great drama, surely; the drama of Adam’s salvation. The Church puts these things to us as best it can, but in a necessarily imperfect tongue, that is, the human tongue. It makes us familiar with extraordinary ideas that lose much of their strength with time. Happy the man who, in growing older, can feel the mystery increasing beyond all expression…(Diary: 1928-1957 284).
How I loved the word firmament when I was still a child! To me, it seemed filled with light. My first purely religious emotion, so far as I can remember, goes back to my fifth or sixth year…The room was dark, but through a window-pane I saw thousands of stars shining in the sky. This was the first time, to my knowledge, that God spoke directly to me, in that vast, confused tongue which words have never been able to render. (Diary: 1928-1957 296).
Yet, in spite of himself, he could also sum up the most profound mysteries in brief and simple words:
What then did this book [Faith of Our Fathers, by Cardinal Gibbons] tell me? It revealed to me that even if I were alone in the world, Christ would come to save me. And it was the same for each of us. Why? For what reason? For love. God is love. When one has said that, one has said everything. (Letter to Deal Hudson, 1995)
The contours of his spirituality were shaped by a number of writers. Among many others, we find the lingering presence of St. Augustine, Pascal, Fénelon, Newman, Bossuet, St. Francis of Assisi, the Carmelite doctors, the Jesuits, Jacques Maritain, Bloy, Claudel, Bernanos, and one rather important nun who is often overlooked: Mère Yvonne-Aimée de Jésus, of the Augustinian Monastery of Malestroit in Brittany. Dom Mark Daniel Kirby has an excellent post over at Vultus Christi outlining the connection between the nun and the writer.
Green maintained relationships with many communities over the course of his life. For instance, on October 25, 1947, he visited the famous Solesmes Abbey. He was impressed with the solemn chant and hymnody he heard there. Green had only the highest praise for the monastic vocation:
The monks in their black robes seem to glide over the surface of the floor like ghosts. On their faces, pax, as everywhere in this place. Peace and joy…It seems to me that Benedictine life is one hymn of happiness and love, in a rather slow mode, true enough, but what charm in this slowness and how precious it seems to me in a world that a passion for speed has made almost idiotic! A hymn, that’s what it is…It occurs to me at times that these monks live in a sort of great liturgical dream, whereas, in reality, they are the ones who see things as they are, and we are the ones who live in a dream always on the verge of turning into a nightmare. (Diary: 1928-1957 190).
No doubt, he wrote these words with a degree of wistful melancholy. In Green’s first flush of religious zeal, he had been received into the Church by one Father Crété, a Jesuit who also encouraged him to pursue a vocation as a Benedictine at Quarr Abbey, on the Isle of Wight (Kirby). That was the life he left behind when he came to America, stepped into Fitzhugh’s Latin class one day, and discovered that he bore “the Shame of Antiquity.”
Julien Green would be worth remembering here at UVA if only because of his accomplishments as a writer. In the words of his obituary,
Green’s earlier novels – Mont-Cinere (1926), Adrienne Mesurat (1927), Leviathan (1929), L’Autre Sommeil (1931), Epaves (1932), Le Visionnaire (1934), Minuit (1936), Varouna (1940) – with their brooding melancholy and troubling sexual undertones, are masterpieces of psychological subtlety and crystal-clear but evocatively poetic style…But undoubtedly Green will chiefly be remembered for his extraordinary journals, the longest in French literature; those so far published cover 70 years (1926-96) while Gide’s cover 62 (1889-1951). There are more to follow…His prizes and honours are innumerable. (Kirkup).
But he offers so much more than a literary legacy. Julien Green’s star is fixed in the celestial canon of the greatest Christian artists the modern world has seen. He deserves a place alongside those other artists who share his temperament and spirituality: Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Shusaku Endo, Paul Verlaine, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Georges Rouault, T.S. Eliot, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. His life story sits uneasily in the restrictive and politicized categories we draw to understand the sometimes dizzying diversity within the communion of saints. He and his work challenge us. Catholics—particularly Catholics at the University of Virginia—should embrace that challenge.
But perhaps the most basic plea I can make is that Julien Green is one of us. He was a student at the University of Virginia. His experience in Charlottesville profoundly marked his soul and his art. It may not have been a happy time in his life, but it changed him forever and left him with a profound gratitude for Mr. Jefferson’s University. How many of us can say the same?
Green’s diary reveals that, years after he left UVA, he came to appreciate it in a much deeper way. On December 6, 1933, in anticipation of a return trip, he writes,
It has been eleven years since I left [the University], and I wonder if I will be sad or happy to see it once more. No doubt I did not know how to benefit from all it offered me; I did not quite understand the University, and it did not condescend to explain itself. It was only once I left that I realized how deeply I loved it and was unknowingly immensely indebted to it. But in 1920 I missed France too much. At twenty, in one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, without a worry for the future, I contrived every day to think myself unhappy. Ah! if everything had to be lived over again, with the experience that I have acquired since! How many friendships were offered me and discouraged by my lack of sociability! (Diary 1928-1957 45).
For an undergraduate about to walk the Lawn at graduation, I can’t help but relate to Green’s introspection. The words he wrote on what was, I believe, his last visit, June 12, 1941, are particularly poignant. He composed that entry while in exile during World War II, but the questions he poses loom before all of us who are soon to move on. I would like to offer them for your consideration.
At the University, toward the close of the same day. All the students have gone; everything is given up to solitude and to memory. We strolled on the big lawn that spreads before the Rotunda: great trees whispered above our heads, rows of white columns glimmered in the twilight, and I had never been struck as now by the simple beauty of the “ranges.” I would have liked to linger there for years, but we had to leave, one always has to leave, no matter what or where. And then, what would I have done at the University? Where is my place? Where am I going to live? Where am I going to die? (Diary: 1928-1957 113).
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