The Hidden Wound of Christ

Christ Carrying the Cross, Titian, c. 1560 (Source)

In Holy Week, we edge ever closer to the Paschal Mystery that begins on Maundy Thursday and does not end until the joy of Easter Morning. Or, more rightly, the joy that never ends. The Paschal Mystery is always present on our altars. Christ deigns to give us all of the glory and drama of those frightful, baffling, sacred days in the course of every single Mass. The reverse is also true. Our meditation on the events of the first Holy Week must be impregnated by a sense of the profound Eucharisticity of it all. Everywhere, be it in the shadowed garden or the iniquitous court or the clamorous street or the desolate mount where Our Lord died, we discover hints of Eucharistic air. We cannot approach these scenes without catching a whiff of incense.

This scent of paradise would seem to waft from the very wounds of Christ as from the most fragrant flowers on earth. For they are the vessels of the new creation, the blooms of the new Eden, and the stars in the new Heaven. If we would have an idea of paradise, we must study the shape and depth and hue and feel and – in the Eucharist – the taste of these wounds. They are our gates to Heaven. They are our safe passage through the sea of tohu-va-bohu, the chaos of this sinful world. Yet, one must not carry the comparison too far. If the Israelites reached the Mountain of God kept dry of the waters of the Red Sea, the Christian must do quite the opposite. He finds God by drowning in that very different red sea, Christ’s Precious Blood. He must die there in that flood, just as His Savior did. But this death brings new life – and that everlasting.

Christ the True Vine. (Source)

It is thus the peculiar mission of the Christian soul to devote herself to the Holy Wounds. Few devotions are more perfect, for few are so closely bound to the very quick and marrow of our salvation. Indeed, devotion to the Holy Wounds is little more than devotion to Christ precisely as Redeemer of Mankind, and thus as our Prophet, Priest, and King, as Victim and Altar, as the Word Incarnate – in short, to Christ Himself.

It also inevitably means devotion to Christ in the Eucharist. All of the Holy Wounds remind us of the Blessed Sacrament. We find them there, on the altar, and we discover the shadow of the tabernacle falling over each wound in turn.

Anyone who has seen the Medieval materials produced around this devotion (including the flag of the doomed and valorous Pilgrimage of Grace) will know that, typically, there were five Holy Wounds: two feet, two hands, and heart. One could bring this count up to six if the wound in the side were considered separately from the heart. Yet St. Bernard of Clairvaux suggests there is another wound, rarely depicted, that gave Our Lord exquisite dolors unrecognized by men. Once, in conversation with Jesus, the Mellifluous Doctor asked him about his greatest unrecorded suffering. Jesus answered,

“I had on My Shoulder while I bore My Cross on the Way of Sorrows, a grievous Wound that was more painful than the others, and which is not recorded by men. Honor this Wound with thy devotion, and I will grant thee whatsoever thou dost ask through its virtue and merit. And in regard to all those who shall venerate this Wound, I will remit to them all their venial sins and will no longer remember their mortal sins.”

From the Annals of Clairvaux

A prayer to the Holy Shoulder Wound, bearing the imprimatur of Thomas D. Beaven, Bishop of Springfield, has circulated on the internet. It reads:

O most loving Jesus, meek lamb of God, I, a miserable sinner,
salute and worship the most sacred Wound of Thy Shoulder
on which Thou didst bear Thy heavy Cross, which so
tore Thy flesh and laid bare Thy bones as to inflict on Thee
an anguish greater than any other wound of Thy most blessed body.
I adore Thee, O Jesus most sorrowful; I praise and glorify Thee,
and give Thee thanks for this most sacred and painful
Wound, beseeching Thee by that exceeding pain, and by
the crushing burden of Thy heavy Cross, to be merciful to me,
a sinner, and to forgive me all my mortal and venial sins, and
to lead me on toward Heaven along the Way of the Cross. Amen.

Prayer to the Holy Shoulder Wound

All the wounds of Jesus teach us something of his Eucharistic life. The wounds and the Blessed Sacrament are mutually illuminating. If we would understand the Eucharist, we can look to the wounds; if we desire to penetrate those wounds more deeply, we must adore and receive the Eucharist. This can be seen in each of the typical wounds. The feet remind us of the absolute fixity as well as the global universality of the Blessed Sacrament. The hands remind us of Christ’s priesthood. The Wounds in the side and heart of Jesus speak to the burning charity which motivated the institution of the Sacrament as well as its generative power; along with Baptism, it makes mortal men into Sons of God.

A medieval image of the Holy Wounds and instruments of the Passion. (Source)

The shoulder wound, however, tells us something different. It points to the veil of the Eucharist. It reminds us of the hiddenness of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. It is a silent and unseen wound, and it tells us about the silent and unseen God who becomes present for us, silently and invisibly, in the Eucharist. It was this wound, so St. Bernard tells us, that caused Our Lord such terrible pain in His Passion.

Consider the duty of the Christian soul towards this admirable wound. She must make reparation to the Father for this wound on the unblemished Son; she can only do this by uniting her own sorrows to His. She must prayerfully let the Holy Spirit mold her hidden suffering into the very likeness of the shoulder wound. No suffering is too great for this transfiguration, nor any soul too far gone in sin for this empowerment. All that is needed is a penitent heart, a sacramental life, and humble prayer before the Father. The Almighty is merciful, and His mercy comes to us through the Wounds of Jesus Christ. In fact, we find here one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith. If we would behold the mercy of the Father, we must look at the wounds of the Son – they are His mercy.

The Christian must burrow into them. We must bury ourselves in the wounds of Christ. We cannot be stingy with this self-offering. Every part of the soul belongs to God. The hidden wound of the shoulder reminds us that, even those parts we wish to keep away from the eyes of the world, those most interior sins, those most private sufferings, those darkest sorrows and temptations – all these unseen afflictions of body and soul – all must be given over to God. Nothing can remain outside His grasp. In the words of the Evangelist, “there is nothing hid which shall not become manifest, nor secret which shall not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17 DRA). It is fruitless to hide from God, just as it was when our first parents fled from His voice in the Garden. And so, the hidden wound of Christ reminds us that we will be judged, even as it offers us mercy.

These considerations must spur us to a more authentically Eucharistic life. We cannot hope to save ourselves. Christ has died for us, and to take on His dying life, we must cleave to the Blessed Sacrament. Acts of Reparation, Adoration, and frequent reception of communion are all ways to press our souls into the sacrifice of Christ.

Have you sanctified the Holy Wounds in your heart? (Source)

In this sacred time of year, let us make a special effort to hallow the Holy Wounds in our heart, to unite our sufferings to those endured by our Savior, and to make reparation for the offenses that sin has wrought. And above all, let us praise God the Father Almighty, the author of these Holy Wounds, for His infinite mercy.

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Fénelon on Perseverance in Prayer

In Lent, I often return to the words of the great Bishop of Cambrai, François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon. He is a perennially refreshing source of spiritual wisdom and guidance. Since we are finally in Passiontide, I thought this excerpt from Fénelon’s sermon on prayer, “The Saints Converse with God,” would be greatly edifying for all those of my readers keeping up with the Lenten Spirituality Series.

A portrait of Fénelon in excellent blue-purple episcopal garb (Source)

We must pray with perseverance. The perfect heart is never weary of seeking God. Ought we to complain if God sometimes leaves us to obscurity, and doubt, and temptation? Trials purify humble souls, and they serve to expiate the faults of the unfaithful. They confound those who, even in their prayers, have flattered their cowardice and pride. If an innocent soul, devoted to God, suffer from any secret disturbance, it should be humble, adore the designs of God, and redouble its prayers and its fervor. How often do we hear those who every day have to reproach themselves with unfaithfulness toward God complain that He refuses to answer their prayers! Ought they not to acknowledge that it is their sins which have formed a thick cloud between Heaven and them, and that God has justly hidden Himself from them? How often has He recalled us from our wanderings! How often, ungrateful as we are, have we been deaf to His voice and insensible to His goodness! He would make us feel that we are blind and miserable when we forsake Him. He would teach us, by privation, the value of the blessings that we have slighted. And shall we not bear our punishment with patience? Who can boast of having done all that he ought to have done; of having repaired all his past errors; of having purified his heart, so that he may claim as a right that God should listen to his prayer? Most truly, all our pride, great as it is, would not be sufficient to inspire such presumption! If then, the Almighty do not grant our petitions, let us adore His justice, let us be silent, let us humble ourselves, and let us pray without ceasing. This humble perseverance will obtain from Him what we should never obtain by our own merit. It will make us pass happily from darkness to light; for know, says St. Augustine, that God is near to us even when He appears far from us.

Six Years a Catholic

Allegory of the Heart of St. Joseph (Source)

On the 30th of March, 2013, I made the profession of faith at the Easter Vigil and received the sacraments of Confirmation and First Holy Communion from then-Bishop-Elect David Talley. I can still remember the night well. It was raining hard outside, and so we had to light the Paschal fire at the church door. We catechumens and confirmandi huddled in darkness while the rites began. It was a moment of profound holiness, and an Easter liturgy I will never forget.

Much has happened since that night. I am still a sinner, much as I was then. Perhaps I am a bit more aware of the fact, though. That’s a grace in itself. I have been a student, a pilgrim, and a devotee. I have made many friends in heaven and earth who have helped me along the way to God. I am grateful for every one of them, and I hope I have been able to do the same from time to time.

Ever since 2014, I have consecrated every year of my life as a Catholic to some Holy Person. My second year was dedicated to Our Lady, the third to the Holy Ghost, the fourth to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the fifth to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary. Keeping in this vein, I hereby consecrate my sixth year as a Catholic to the Most Chaste Heart of St. Joseph.

The Most Chaste Heart of St. Joseph (Source)

St. Joseph has been a great friend to me in the past, and has proven the power of his intercession on more than one occasion. I ask my readers to join me in praying now that St. Joseph will bless this coming year with abundant graces proper to my state of life, and especially an outpouring of those virtues which he so admirably exemplified: humility, purity, simplicity, detachment, submission to the will of God, reverence, and a constant, attentive devotion to Jesus and Mary.

St. Joseph with St Benedict and angels (Source)

Holy St. Joseph, pray for me.

Mighty St. Joseph, pray for me.

Humble St. Joseph, pray for me.

Pure St. Joseph, pray for me.

Pious St. Joseph, pray for me.

Sweet St. Joseph, pray for me.

Heart of St. Joseph, pray for me.

Amen.

The Coronation of St. Joseph (Source)


Dame Julian of Norwich on the Thirst of Christ

Christ on the Cross, from the Isenheim Altarpiece of Matthias Grünewald (Source)

As part of my Lenten Spirituality Series, here is Dame Julian of Norwich’s meditation on the thirst of Christ, Chapter XVII of Revelations of Divine Love:

“How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, and all my bliss, and all my joy suffer?

And in this dying was brought to my mind the words of Christ: I thirst.

For I saw in Christ a double thirst: one bodily; another spiritual…

For this word was shewed for the bodily thirst: the which I understood was caused by failing of moisture. For the blessed flesh and bones was left all alone without blood and moisture. The blessed body dried alone long time with wringing of the nails and weight of the body. For I understood that for tenderness of the sweet hands and of the sweet feet, by the greatness, hardness, and grievousness of the nails the wounds waxed wide and the body sagged, for weight by long time hanging. And [therewith was] piercing and pressing of the head, and binding of the Crown all baked with dry blood, with the sweet hair clinging, and the dry flesh, to the thorns, and the thorns to the flesh drying; and in the beginning while the flesh was fresh and bleeding, the continual sitting of the thorns made the wounds wide. And furthermore I saw that the sweet skin and the tender flesh, with the hair and the blood, was all raised and loosed about from the bone, with the thorns where-through it were rent in many pieces, as a cloth that were sagging, as if it would hastily have fallen off, for heaviness and looseness, while it had natural moisture. And that was great sorrow and dread to me: for methought I would not for my life have seen it fall. How it was done I saw not; but understood it was with the sharp thorns and the violent and grievous setting on of the Garland of Thorns, unsparingly and without pity. This continued awhile, and soon it began to change, and I beheld and marvelled how it might be. And then I saw it was because it began to dry, and stint a part of the weight, and set about the Garland. And thus it encircled all about, as it were garland upon garland. The Garland of the Thorns was dyed with the blood, and that other garland [of Blood] and the head, all was one colour, as clotted blood when it is dry. The skin of the flesh that shewed (of the face and of the body), was small-rimpled [1] with a tanned colour, like a dry board when it is aged; and the face more brown than the body.

I saw four manner of dryings: the first was bloodlessness; the second was pain following after; the third, hanging up in the air, as men hang a cloth to dry; the fourth, that the bodily Kind asked liquid and there was no manner of comfort ministered to Him in all His woe and distress. Ah! hard and grievous was his pain, but much more hard and grievous it was when the moisture failed and began to dry thus, shrivelling.

These were the pains that shewed in the blessed head: the first wrought to the dying, while it had moisture; and that other, slow, with shrinking drying, [and] with blowing of the wind from without, that dried and pained Him with cold more than mine heart can think.

And other pains—for which pains I saw that all is too little that I can say: for it may not be told.

The which Shewing of Christ’s pains filled me full of pain. For I wist well He suffered but once, but [this was as if] He would shew it me and fill me with mind as I had afore desired. And in all this time of Christ’s pains I felt no pain but for Christ’s pains. Then thought-me: I knew but little what pain it was that I asked; and, as a wretch, repented me, thinking: If I had wist what it had been, loth me had been to have prayed it. For methought it passed bodily death, my pains.

I thought: Is any pain like this? And I was answered in my reason: Hell is another pain: for there is despair. But of all pains that lead to salvation this is the most pain, to see thy Love suffer. How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, all my bliss, and all my joy, suffer? Here felt I soothfastly [2] that I loved Christ so much above myself that there was no pain that might be suffered like to that sorrow that I had to [see] Him in pain.

[1] or shrivelled.

[2] in sure verity.

St. Francis de Sales Doesn’t Dance

Here is an extremely amusing (and, in its own way, edifying) little chapter from Introduction to the Devout Life. I’ve only just encountered it by chance. It’s passages like this that rather make one understand why Evelyn Underhill summed up his teaching in the one line, “Yes, indeed, my dear Duchess, as Your Grace so truly observes, God is love.”

One can almost hear the Gentleman Saint sipping his tea at the end of each numbered item in the list below.

CHAPTER XXXIII. Of Balls, and other Lawful but Dangerous Amusements.

DANCES and balls are things in themselves indifferent, but the circumstances ordinarily surrounding them have so generally an evil tendency, that they become full of temptation and danger. The time of night at which they take place is in itself conducive to harm, both as the season when people’s nerves are most excited and open to evil impressions; and because, after being up the greater part of the night, they spend the mornings afterwards in sleep, and lose the best part of the day for God’s Service. It is a senseless thing to turn day into night, light into darkness, and to exchange good works for mere trifling follies. Moreover, those who frequent balls almost inevitably foster their Vanity, and vanity is very conducive to unholy desires and dangerous attachments.

I am inclined to say about balls what doctors say of certain articles of food, such as mushrooms and the like—the best are not good for much; but if eat them you must, at least mind that they are properly cooked. So, if circumstances over which you have no control take you into such places, be watchful how you prepare to enter them. Let the dish be seasoned with moderation, dignity and good intentions. The doctors say (still referring to the mushrooms), eat sparingly of them, and that but seldom, for, however well dressed, an excess is harmful.

So dance but little, and that rarely, my daughter, lest you run the risk of growing over fond of the amusement.

Pliny says that mushrooms, from their porous, spongy nature, easily imbibe meretricious matter, so that if they are near a serpent, they are infected by its poison. So balls and similar gatherings are wont to attract all that is bad and vicious; all the quarrels, envyings, slanders, and indiscreet tendencies of a place will be found collected in the ballroom. While people’s bodily pores are opened by the exercise of dancing, the heart’s pores will be also opened by excitement, and if any serpent be at hand to whisper foolish words of levity or impurity, to insinuate unworthy thoughts and desires, the ears which listen are more than prepared to receive the contagion.

Believe me, my daughter, these frivolous amusements are for the most part dangerous; they dissipate the spirit of devotion, enervate the mind, check true charity, and arouse a multitude of evil inclinations in the soul, and therefore I would have you very reticent in their use.

To return to the medical simile;—it is said that after eating mushrooms you should drink some good wine. So after frequenting balls you should frame pious thoughts which may counteract the dangerous impressions made by such empty pleasures on your heart.

Bethink you, then—

1. That while you were dancing, souls were groaning in hell by reason of sins committed when similarly occupied, or in consequence thereof.

2. Remember how, at the selfsame time, many religious and other devout persons were kneeling before God, praying or praising Him. Was not their time better spent than yours?

3. Again, while you were dancing, many a soul has passed away amid sharp sufferings; thousands and tens of thousands were lying all the while on beds of anguish, some perhaps untended, unconsoled, in fevers, and all manner of painful diseases. Will you not rouse yourself to a sense of pity for them? At all events, remember that a day will come when you in your turn will lie on your bed of sickness, while others dance and make merry.

4. Bethink you that our Dear Lord, Our Lady, all the Angels and Saints, saw all that was passing. Did they not look on with sorrowful pity, while your heart, capable of better things, was engrossed with such mere follies?

5. And while you were dancing time passed by, and death drew nearer. Trifle as you may, the awful dance of death must come, the real pastime of men, since therein they must, whether they will or no, pass from time to an eternity of good or evil. If you think of the matter quietly, and as in God’s Sight, He will suggest many a like thought, which will steady and strengthen your heart.

St. Francis de Sales, giving you the side-eye.

The Funerary Rites of James II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Three New Books for Early Modernists

There are some very exciting publications coming out soon…especially for those of us who study religion in the early modern period.

First, there’s a new series from CUA Press on Early Modern Catholic Sources, edited by Ulrich Lehner and Trent Pomplun. The first volume covers Christological debates among the Discalced Carmelites of the School of Salamanca. I think it’s a fair assumption that this material has never been translated before. The first volume should appear in 2019.

Salmanticenses-final-sketch

Vol. I of Early Modern Catholic Sources (Source)

Second, and more germane to my own work, we have Jeffrey Burson’s very promising intervention into the perennial “Enlightenment” v. “Enlightenments” debate. His new book, Culture of Enlightening: Abbé Claude Yvon and the Entangled Emergence of the Enlightenment, is scheduled to be released from Notre Dame Press in May 2019. Burson has already established himself as a major scholar of the Catholic Enlightenment, and his newest foray promises to be his most ambitious work yet.

Bursonbook

Burson’s new book (Source)

For those of you who, like me, take an interest in the Jansenists and in early modern Catholic women, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a new study of Pascal’s sisters by Rev. John J. Conley, S.J. The Other Pascals: The Philosophy of Jacqueline Pascal, Gilberte Pascal Périer, and Marguerite Périer, another ND Press piece slated for an April 2019 release, will no doubt shed new light on these fascinating figures. Conley has done important work before on Catholic women in the 17th century – I look forward to his newest treatment of the subject.

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A Jesuit writes about Jansenists (Source)

And if you’re just looking for general book recommendations, might I refer you to Incudi Reddere? You’ll find much more there.

The Amish Catholic…in Translation

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I’ve always wanted to visit Poland. (Source)

My review of The Benedict Option, “Benedict Shrugged,” has just been translated into Polish at Christianitas.org. I believe it is the first time any of my work has been put into any language other than English.

I must thank the lovely Natalia Łajszczak for translating what is, in fact, a rather long piece. I am sure she has done a wonderful job. I must also thank her husband, Filip, an old friend and the one who first approached me with the idea. I’m honored that they thought my review was worth the time and effort, and, moreover, that they thought it might be useful to have it in another language.

For those who can read Polish, go check out Natalia’s work!

A Curious Juxtaposition

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The Pope. (Source)

Let it never be said that His Holiness does not contain multitudes. Consider the following:

“It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service.” – Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exultate 26

Pope Francis, 3rd of September 2018: “With people who don’t have good will, who seek only scandal, who want only division, who seek only destruction — including within the family: silence, prayer.”

Quelle surprise!

(C.C. Pecknold and I seem to have noticed the same point independently. Great minds and all that)

Unfashionable Thoughts on the Proliferation of Bibles

PentecostGradualIllumination

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

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

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

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

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

An Observation

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

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

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This is a real thing. (Source)

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

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

The Problem

These trappings are all deeply insidious for several reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

The Decay of the Scriptural Aura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Return to the Family Bible

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

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

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