The Prince of Papist Purple Prose

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Faberesque religious art. (Source)

The Church offers us the way of salvation. She declares the destination, Heaven; she notes our provenance, the bondage of our sinful nature. And she furnishes a route from the latter up to the former. Or, I might say, “routes.” For while the Cruciform road to Heaven may appear singular from afar, anyone who enters the Journey will find that it is in fact composed of many different paths. The holy diversity of the Church is one testament of its Catholicity. Like a great Cathedral or Basilica that appears as one massive edifice from the street but harbors dozens of little side-altars within, each distinctly the Table of the Lord, the Church offers more streams of spirituality than we can discern. Some flow still in our midst, giving life to multitudes. Others run dry. And some thought long-extinct may suddenly spring forth in new vim and vigor.

It is only a natural and concurrent fact that the Church should likewise offer her children a diverse array of spiritual writers. There is the beautiful, mysterious Areopagite; the mighty, noble St. Augustine; the dazzlingly imaginative St. Ephrem the Syrian; the logical, pacific Aquinas; the bloody consolations of Dame Julian; the gleaming shadows of St. John of the Cross; the brooding brilliance of Pascal; the soaring eloquence of Bossuet; the roseate cheer of St. Thérèse of Lisieux; the luminous fragmentation of T.S. Eliot; the Gothic grotesquerie of Flannery O’Connor.  The list goes on and on.

The English Catholic Revival was a fertile time for spiritual writers. At the fountainhead of the entire movement stands Cardinal Newman, whose massive influence is still being felt by theologians and writers today. The founder of the English Oratory was a masterful stylist, so much so that James Joyce considered him the greatest master of English prose. Every ecclesiastical development proves that Newman’s theology is more timely than ever. He has been lauded by subsequent generations, and rightly so. When he is eventually canonized, he will certainly be declared a Doctor of the Church for his labors.

But he has, sadly, overshadowed another figure, one no less deserving of praise for his own work on behalf of the Gospel. That man is Fr. Frederick William Faber, the founder of the London Oratory.

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Fr. Frederick William Faber, Father of the Brompton Oratory. (Source)

Faber was an Oxford convert like Newman. After leaving the University, he first served as an Anglican parish priest in Northamptonshire. He would later bring eleven men with him across the Tiber when he resigned his post. After shepherding the community for a short time, he eventually joined forces with Newman and co-founded the English Oratory. They split the country. Newman went to Birmingham, and Faber went to London. In the course of his time there, he gained notoriety as a preacher of remarkable versatility and power, a widely-respected hymnodist, a constant friend of the poor, and an authoritative teacher of the spiritual life. As one source has it, his written works

…are a mine of spiritual gold of the highest purity, refined and drawn from Faber’s deep understanding of Catholic spiritual theology. For he had delved deeply, not only into the standard Scholastic philosophy and theology, but especially into the mystical schools. Father Faber was a brilliant man whose theology of the Absolute Primacy of Christ and Mary is grounded in that of the Subtle Doctor, Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), all recast in simple ordinary English. (174).

When he died, all the great Catholics of England honored his memory. In France, even the formidable abbot of Solesmes, Dom Prosper Guéranger, admired his writings and wrote of him fondly.

But Faber is a largely forgotten figure today, at least among American Catholics. While most have probably heard at least one or two of his hymns, such as “Faith of Our Fathers,” few read more deeply into his life or thought. Why? What has caused this lacuna in our collective memory?

There are, I think, two primary reasons.

The first is that he is eclipsed by Newman. The two had differences in their own day. Newman was resolutely opposed to the pretensions of Ultramonatism; Faber, like Cardinal Manning, was a strong advocate of Rome’s prerogatives. Newman always wanted to return to Oxford and restore some traces of his old, academic life; Faber was content to build the finest church of Great Britain in London, to better minister to the poor. Newman was always a little wary about Marian titles and devotions; Faber practically bathed in them. As Monsignor Rondald Knox writes in 1945,

While Faber is introducing the British public to the most luscious legends of the Counter-Reformation, Newman is still concerned over the difficulties of Anglicans, still asking how and in what sense Catholic doctrine has developed, still cautiously delimiting the spheres of faith and reason. (“The Conversions of Newman and Faber,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 875).

The tensions surrounding Faber’s spirituality eventually led Newman to formally, judicially separate the two houses. Sadly, “While Newman visited Faber shortly before his death, the two men were not able to fully resolve their differences.”

The second, related to the first, is part stylistic, part spiritual. Consider an analogy. Among the Metaphysical Poets, the meditative Donne has always outshone the ebullient Crashaw. Logos is easy to parse. Its analysis is a straightforward, if sometimes arduous task. Pathos, however, is a more slippery beast altogether, and one less communicable and less persistent than we should like to think. It may fire one breast and repel another. Not all hearts chime the same tune in the same wind. Likewise, Newman’s depth, intellect, and style have garnered more attention than Faber’s flowery devotions. His devotional prose is as purple as it gets. Consider the following passage, taken from Part I of “The Mystery of the Precious Blood.”

SALVATION! What music is there in that word – music that never tires but is always new, that always rouses yet always rests us! It holds in itself all that our hearts would say. It is sweet vigor to us in the morning, and in the evening it is contented peace. It is a song that is always singing itself deep down in the delighted soul. Angelic ears are ravished by it up in Heaven; and our Eternal Father Himself listens to it with adorable complacency. It is sweet even to Him out of Whose mind is the music of a thousand worlds. To be saved! What is it to be saved? Who can tell? Eye has not seen, nor ear heard. It is a rescue, and from such a shipwreck. It is a rest, and in such an unimaginable home. It is to lie down forever in the bosom of God in an endless rapture of insatiable contentment. (“The Mystery of the Precious Blood“)

Or, later in the same volume, when he writes the following passage.

Green Nazareth was not a closer hiding-place than the risen glory of the Forty Days. As of old, the Precious Blood clung round the sinless Mother. Like a stream that will not leave its parent chain of mountains, but laves them incessantly with many an obstinate meandering, so did the Blood of Jesus, shed for all hearts of men, haunt the single heart of Mary. Fifteen times, or more in those Forty Days, it came out from under the shadow of Mary’s gladness and gleamed forth in beautiful apparitions. Each of them is a history in itself, and a mystery, and a revelation. Never did the Sacred Heart say or do such ravishing things as those Forty Days of its Risen Life. The Precious Blood had almost grown more human from having been three days in the keeping of the Angels. But, as it had mounted Calvary on Good Friday, so now it mounts Olivet on Ascension Thursday, and disappears into Heaven amidst the whiteness of the silver clouds. It had been but a decree in Heaven before, a Divine idea, an eternal compassion, an inexplicable complacency of the life of God. It returns thither a Human Life, and is throned at the Right Hand of the Father forever in right of its inalienable union with the Person of the Word. There is no change in the Unchangeable. But in Heaven there had never been change like this before, nor ever will be again. The changes of the Great Doom can be nothing compared to the exaltation of the Sacred Humanity of the Eternal Word. The very worship of the glorious spirits was changed, so changed that the Angels themselves cannot say how it is that no change has passed on God. Somehow the look of change has enhanced the magnificence of the Divine immutability, and has given a new gladness to their adoration of its unspeakable tranquility (“The History of the Precious Blood“).

Or this passage from The Blessed Sacrament, taken from a friend who posted it on Facebook for the Nativity of Mary.

Let us mount higher still. Earth never broke forth with so gay and glad fountain as when the Babe Mary, the infant who was the joy of the whole world, the flower of God’s invisible creation, and the perfection of the invisible and hitherto queenless angels of His court, came like the richest fruit, ready-ripe and golden, of the world’s most memorable September. There is hardly a feast in the year so gay and bright as this of her Nativity, right in the heart of the happy harvest, as though she were, as indeed she was, earth’s heavenliest growth, whose cradle was to rock to the measures of the worlds vintage songs; for she had come who was the true harvest-home that homeless world.

His devotion to Our Lady was legendary. He was, in fact, the first English translator of St. Louis de Montfort’s famous text, True Devotion to Mary…and that even before he had become an Oratorian! He was also probably the first English author to think of Mary as Co-Redemptrix. In one of his hymns, he declares:

Mother of God! we hail thy heart,
Throned in the azure skies,
While far and wide within its charm
The whole creation lies.
O sinless heart, all hail!
God’s dear delight, all hail!
Our home, our home is deep in thee,
Eternally, eternally.
(Source)

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Lace holy card of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Extremely Fr. Faber’s aesthetic. (Source)

Fr. Faber’s devotion to Our Lady extended beyond his prolific writings. He not only translated St. Louis’s book. In 1846, he undertook his own Marian consecration in the Holy House of Loreto. He had a tendency to refer to the Mother of God as “Mama.” A famous episode related by Monsignor Knox depicts Fr. Faber at one of his more florid moments. After a particularly high Marian procession at the Oratory, he was observed weeping. Without any care for who heard, he cried out, “Won’t Mamma be pleased?” (“The Conversion of Faber,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 891).

None of this spirituality or the writing in which it comes to us fits our modern tastes. It is too perfumed, too sickly-sweet, too campy, too Victorian, too decadent, too redolent of pastel holy cards mouldering in antique prayer books. One critic puts it thus:

There are great slabs of passages, sometimes chapters at a time, which glow with ethereal light but have little content. Hypnotized by his own fluency Faber flows on and on, melodious and tedious…There are awful lapses of taste. (Chapman, quoted here).

And certainly, Faber cared not one shred for taste. The only thing that mattered was the salvation and sanctification of souls. Knox tells us that “‘Art for art’s sake’ had no meaning for him…if a bad verse would have more chance of winning souls than a good verse, down the bad verse would go” (“The Conversion of Faber,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 891). There is much to criticize in this tendency from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Christians should commit themselves to the highest standards in all artistic and literary endeavors.

But it is hard not to like the man weeping after the procession; it is harder still to feel totally averse to passages that glow purple as the evening sky. One has the sense that Fr. Faber would have been a remarkable presence today, if only because his emotionalism and baroque, slightly kitschy aesthetic would have made him an ironic celebrity on Weird Catholic Twitter. Imagine what he would have done with memes!

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Santa Maria Bambina, Southern Italy. (Source)

Yet he would also be a sign of contradiction. We have seen a renewed emphasis on Muscular Christianity, with a proliferation of websites, associations, and thinkpieces all dedicated to restoring “authentic masculinity” and resisting the “feminization” of the liturgy. This is a particularly popular movement within the larger Traditionalist wing of the Church. In brief, the narrative usually runs as follows:

1) After Vatican II, the Novus Ordo initiated a new, “feminine” form of the Mass.
2) This innovation was a substantive capitulation to the Sexual Revolution.
3) Men don’t want to serve a feminized Church in a feminized liturgy, with altar girls, felt banners, versus populum, happy-clappy music, etc.
4) The vocations crisis of the last 30-40 years ensues.
5) As such, we need to restore more pronounced gender binaries and hierarchies along with the Usus Antiquior.

Some of this narrative may be correct. I refrain from judging its particular historical claims, social implications, or theological presuppositions.

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Midnight Mass at the Brompton Oratory. (Source)

Nevertheless, Fr. Faber confounds that entire way of thinking. He was anything but a “Muscular” Christian. His personality, style, and spirituality were so clearly “feminine” that his own nephew, the publisher Geoffrey Faber, considered him a probable closet case (see David Hilliard’s famous essay “UnEnglish and Unmanly,” page 5). Whether or not his (disputed) conclusions about the priest (and all the leaders of the Oxford Movement) are true, it suffices to say that Fr. Faber was far from the “authentically masculine” man fetishized by the new Muscular Christianity.  Yet liturgically he was known as one of the highest of the high, and his sons at the Brompton Oratory continue that admirable tradition. If nothing else, Fr. Faber’s legacy is the Oratory that still stand as a landmark of reverence, beauty, and transcendent holiness in the midst of postconciliar banality.

 

What’s more, Fr. Faber is not just a fine hymnodist and devotional writer. He penetrated deep mysteries of the faith. A thoroughgoing Scotist, he advocated the thesis (shared by this author) that Christ probably would have been incarnated anyway even if Adam had never fallen. And as the Church’s Mariology continues to develop, his arguments on behalf of Our Lady’s Co-Redemption may yet prove invaluable. Sophiologists should take note. Here is a man after our own heart.

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A holy card of Santa Maria Bambina. (Source)

Fr. Faber writes of Our Lady’s suffering in a passage worth quoting at length:

But this is not all. She co-operated with our Lord in the redemption of the world in quite a different sense, a sense which can never be more than figuratively true of the Saints. Her free consent was necessary to the Incarnation, as necessary as free will is to merit according to the counsels of God. She gave Him the pure blood, out of which the Holy Ghost fashioned His Flesh and bone and Blood. She bore Him in her womb for nine months, feeding Him with her own substance. Of her was He born, and to her He owed all those maternal offices which, according to common laws, were necessary for the preservation of His inestimable life. She exercised over Him the plenitude of parental jurisdiction. She consented to His Passion; and if she could not in reality have withheld her consent, because it was already involved in her original consent to the Incarnation, nevertheless she did not in fact withhold it, and so He went to Calvary as her free-will offering to the Father. Now, this is co-operation in a different sense from the former, and if we compare it with the co-operation of the Saints, their own co-operation, in which Mary herself alone surpassed them all, we shall see that this other peculiar co-operation of hers was indispensable to the redemption of the world as effected on the Cross. Souls could be saved without the co-operation of the Saints. The soul of the penitent thief was saved with no other co-operation than that of Mary, and, if our Blessed Lord had so willed it, could have been saved without even that. But the co-operation of the Divine Maternity was indispensable. Without it our Lord would not have been born when and as He was; He would not have had that Body to suffer in; the whole series of the Divine purposes would have been turned aside, and either frustrated, or diverted into another channel. It was through the free will and blissful consent of Mary that they flowed as God would have them flow. Bethlehem, and Nazareth, and Calvary, came out of her consent, a consent which God did in no wise constrain. But not only is the co-operation of the Saints not indispensable of itself, but no one Saint by himself is indispensable to that co-operation. Another Apostle might have fallen, half the Martyrs might have sacrificed to idols, the Saints in each century might have been a third fewer in number than they were, and yet the co-operation of the Saints would not have been destroyed, though its magnificence would have been impaired. Its existence depends on the body, not on the separate individuals. No one Saint who can be named, unless perhaps it were in some sense St. Peter, was necessary to the work, so necessary that without him the work could not have been accomplished. But in this co-operation of Mary she herself was indispensable. It depended upon her individually. Without her the work could not have been accomplished. Lastly, it was a co-operation of a totally different kind from that of the Saints. Theirs was but the continuation and application of a sufficient redemption already accomplished, while hers was a condition requisite to the accomplishment of that redemption. One was a mere consequence of an event which the other actually secured, and which only became an event by means of it. Hence it was more real, more present, more intimate, more personal, and with somewhat of the nature of a cause in it, which cannot in any way be predicated of the co-operation of the Saints. And all this is true of the co-operation of Mary, without any reference to the dolors at all…Our Lord had taken a created nature, in order that by its means He might accomplish that great work; so it seemed as if the highest honor and the closest union of a sinless creature with Himself should be expressed in the title of co-redemptress. In fact, there is no other single word in which the truth could be expressed; and, far off from His sole and sufficient redemption as Mary’s co-operation lies, her co-operation stands alone and aloof from all the co-operation of the elect of God. This, like some other prerogatives of our Blessed Lady, cannot have justice done it by the mere mention of it. We must make it our own by meditation before we can understand all that it involves. But neither the Immaculate Conception nor the Assumption will give us a higher idea of Mary’s exaltation than this title of co-redemptress, when we have theologically ascertained its significance. Mary is vast on every side, and, as our knowledge and appreciation of God grow, so also will grow our knowledge and appreciation of her His chosen creature. No one thinks unworthily of Mary, except because he thinks unworthily of God. Devotion to the Attributes of God is the best school in which to learn the theology of Mary; and the reward of our study of Mary lies in a thousand new vistas that are opened to us in the Divine Perfections, into which except from her heights we never could have seen at all.
(“The Compassion of Mary,” emphases in source.)

There is much in this text, and in so many like it, to warm a Catholic’s flagging devotion to the Mother of God. For that treasure alone, we should be grateful.

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A Marian Holy Card. (Source)

As his writing on this subject demonstrates, Father Faber was in all things the most enthusiastic and the most Roman of Catholics. Yet his prodigious work on behalf of the Gospel, and the ardor with which he was wont to express himself, made him a popular figure even among Protestants. His hymns are sung by traditional and mainline Protestant churches even today.

A.W. Tozer held him in high esteem, going so far as to write:

Spinoza wrote of the intellectual love of God, and he had a measure of truth there; but the highest love of God is not intellectual, it is spiritual. God is spirit and only the spirit of man can know Him really. In the deep spirit of a man the fire must glow or his love is not the true love of God. The great of the Kingdom have been those who loved God more than others did. We all know who they have been and gladly pay tribute to the depths and sincerity of their devotion. We have but to pause for a moment and their names come trooping past us smelling of myrrh and aloes and cassia out of the ivory palaces. Frederick Faber was one whose soul panted after God as the roe pants after the water brook, and the measure in which God revealed Himself to his seeking heart set the good man’s whole life afire with a burning adoration rivaling that of the seraphim before the throne. His love for God extended to the three Persons of the Godhead equally, yet he seemed to feel for each One a special kind of love reserved for Him alone. The Pursuit of God, p. 40 (quoted here)

If a modern master of Protestant spirituality can appreciate the peculiar wisdom of this effusive little man, then what excuse do we have? The Church has entrusted him to our memory and will, I hope, some day do so formally at the altar of God.

I began this essay describing the various spiritualities that have animated the Church from its earliest days. Some remain vital, others have disappeared, and some may yet come back from quietude. The strange and fragrant spirituality Father Faber let out into the world may appear as one of those dried-up streams, never again to impart life to the desert of our world. We are not Victorians. Yet this great Oratorian offers his gift to us still. We are the ones who must accept it. I have little doubt that his life, example, and thought are welcome aids in our pursuit of Heaven.

Excerpts for St. Austin’s Day

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St. Augustine, Ora Pro Nobis. (Source)

I read this passage from the Confessions today and it instantly became one of my favorites selections from St. Augustine. The translation by Maria Boulding OSB is much prettier, but it’s not public domain. What follows is Book X, Chapters 6-7 (Para. 8-11).

Not with uncertain, but with assured consciousness do I love You, O Lord. You have stricken my heart with Your word, and I loved You. And also the heaven, and earth, and all that is therein, behold, on every side they say that I should love You; nor do they cease to speak unto all, so that they are without excuse. Romans 1:20 But more profoundly will You have mercy on whom You will have mercy, and compassion on whom You will have compassion, otherwise do both heaven and earth tell forth Your praises to deaf ears. But what is it that I love in loving You? Not corporeal beauty, nor the splendour of time, nor the radiance of the light, so pleasant to our eyes, nor the sweet melodies of songs of all kinds, nor the fragrant smell of flowers, and ointments, and spices, not manna and honey, not limbs pleasant to the embracements of flesh. I love not these things when I love my God; and yet I love a certain kind of light, and sound, and fragrance, and food, and embracement in loving my God, who is the light, sound, fragrance, food, and embracement of my inner man— where that light shines unto my soul which no place can contain, where that sounds which time snatches not away, where there is a fragrance which no breeze disperses, where there is a food which no eating can diminish, and where that clings which no satiety can sunder. This is what I love, when I love my God.

And what is this? I asked the earth; and it answered, I am not He; and whatsoever are therein made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps, and the creeping things that lived, and they replied, We are not your God, seek higher than we. I asked the breezy air, and the universal air with its inhabitants answered, Anaximenes was deceived, I am not God. I asked the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars: Neither, say they, are we the God whom you seek? And I answered unto all these things which stand about the door of my flesh, You have told me concerning my God, that you are not He; tell me something about Him. And with a loud voice they exclaimed, He made us. My questioning was my observing of them; and their beauty was their reply. And I directed my thoughts to myself, and said, Who are you? And I answered, A man. And lo, in me there appear both body and soul, the one without, the other within. By which of these should I seek my God, whom I had sought through the body from earth to heaven, as far as I was able to send messengers— the beams of my eyes? But the better part is that which is inner; for to it, as both president and judge, did all these my corporeal messengers render the answers of heaven and earth and all things therein, who said, We are not God, but He made us. These things was my inner man cognizant of by the ministry of the outer; I, the inner man, knew all this— I, the soul, through the senses of my body. I asked the vast bulk of the earth of my God, and it answered me, I am not He, but He made me.

Is not this beauty visible to all whose senses are unimpaired? Why then does it not speak the same things unto all? Animals, the very small and the great, see it, but they are unable to question it, because their senses are not endowed with reason to enable them to judge on what they report. But men can question it, so that the invisible things of Him . . . are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; Romans 1:20 but by loving them, they are brought into subjection to them; and subjects are not able to judge. Neither do the creatures reply to such as question them, unless they can judge; nor will they alter their voice (that is, their beauty), if so be one man only sees, another both sees and questions, so as to appear one way to this man, and another to that; but appearing the same way to both, it is mute to this, it speaks to that— yea, verily, it speaks unto all but they only understand it who compare that voice received from without with the truth within. For the truth declares unto me, Neither heaven, nor earth, nor any body is your God. This, their nature declares unto him that beholds them. They are a mass; a mass is less in part than in the whole. Now, O my soul, you are my better part, unto you I speak; for you animate the mass of your body, giving it life, which no body furnishes to a body but your God is even unto you the Life of life.

What then is it that I love when I love my God? Who is He that is above the head of my soul? By my soul itself will I mount up unto Him. I will soar beyond that power of mine whereby I cling to the body, and fill the whole structure of it with life. Not by that power do I find my God; for then the horse and the mule, which have no understanding, might find Him, since it is the same power by which their bodies also live. But there is another power, not that only by which I quicken, but that also by which I endow with sense my flesh, which the Lord has made for me; bidding the eye not to hear, and the ear not to see; but that, for me to see by, and this, for me to hear by; and to each of the other senses its own proper seat and office, which being different, I, the single mind, do through them govern. I will soar also beyond this power of mine; for this the horse and mule possess, for they too discern through the body.

And I’ll add this paragraph from Chapter 17 (Para. 26), which strongly reminds me of Cardinal Newman’s project in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua:

Great is the power of memory; very wonderful is it, O my God, a profound and infinite manifoldness; and this thing is the mind, and this I myself am. What then am I, O my God? Of what nature am I? A life various and manifold, and exceeding vast. Behold, in the numberless fields, and caves, and caverns of my memory, full without number of numberless kinds of things, either through images, as all bodies are; or by the presence of the things themselves, as are the arts; or by some notion or observation, as the affections of the mind are, which, even though the mind does not suffer, the memory retains, while whatsoever is in the memory is also in the mind: through all these do I run to and fro, and fly; I penetrate on this side and that, as far as I am able, and nowhere is there an end. So great is the power of memory, so great the power of life in man, whose life is mortal. What then shall I do, O Thou my true life, my God? I will pass even beyond this power of mine which is called memory— I will pass beyond it, that I may proceed to You, O Thou sweet Light. What sayest Thou to me? Behold, I am soaring by my mind towards You who remainest above me. I will also pass beyond this power of mine which is called memory, wishful to reach You whence You can be reached, and to cleave unto You whence it is possible to cleave unto You. For even beasts and birds possess memory, else could they never find their lairs and nests again, nor many other things to which they are used; neither indeed could they become used to anything, but by their memory. I will pass, then, beyond memory also, that I may reach Him who has separated me from the four-footed beasts and the fowls of the air, making me wiser than they. I will pass beyond memory also, but where shall I find You, O Thou truly good and assured sweetness? But where shall I find You? If I find You without memory, then am I unmindful of You. And how now shall I find You, if I do not remember You?

 

Elsewhere: Pater Edmund on Goggles, Cranmer on Bishop Philip North

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The Rt. Rev. Philip North, Bishop of Burnley. Alumnus of St. Stephen’s House. (Source).

I refer you this morning to two excellent pieces I had the good fortune of reading last night. The first is a winsome yet profound meditation on goggles by Pater Edmund Waldstein O.Cist. of Stift Heiligenkreuz. Right out of the gate, Peregrine Magazine is putting forward excellent content. Here’s an excerpt:

Putting them on, I suddenly remembered why I spent so much time swimming as a child. What a world opens up! Looking down: the still forest of water plants, the rays of the sun lighting up the particles of algae. Looking up: the strange silver shield of the surface with the blazing sun above it. And the freedom of movement of swimming! The rigid postures of life on land yield to the wonderful abandon of the water. (What sense of freedom is that, I wonder).

Among other things, I was stunned and somehow delighted to learn that the good monks of Heiligenkreuz are permitted to swim in a lake.

The second offering I have for you is a piece posted by Archbishop Cranmer. In it, he quotes at length from a recent address given by Bishop Philip North of the C of E. Bishop North is no stranger to controversy, having been shunted out of his appointment as Metropolitan of Sheffield due to his (orthodox, Biblical, and traditional) view that women cannot be priests.

…When my old Parish in Hartlepool, a thriving estates Church, was vacant a few years ago, it was over two years before the Bishop could appoint. Clergy didn’t want to live in that kind of area, they didn’t want their children educated alongside the poor – you’ll know the litany of excuses. At the same time a Parish in Paddington was advertised and at once attracted 122 expressions of interest. That is the true measure of the spiritual health of the Church of England.

This phenomenon is, incidentally, a good argument for a celibate clergy. If you don’t have children, you don’t have to worry about their safety and upbringing when it comes to ministry. But I digress. More from Bishop North:

…we need to reflect on the content of our proclamation. There is a perception that there is a single, verbal Gospel message that can be picked up and dropped from place to place. ‘Christ died for our sins.’ ‘Life in all its fullness.’ Those well-known statements which so easily trip off the Christian tongue. But the Gospel is not a message. It is a person, Jesus Christ, and the way he speaks into different contexts and situations differs from place to place. If you turn up on an estate with nice, tidy complacent answers to questions no one is asking, they will tear you to shreds. Successful evangelism begins with intense listening, with a profound desire to hear the issues on people’s minds and a genuine open heart to discern how Jesus speaks into them. If you’re in debt, what is the good news? If you’re dependent on a foodbank to feed your children, what is the good news? If you’re cripplingly lonely and can’t afford the bus into town, what is the good news? Simple formulae, or trite clichés about God’s love won’t do as answers to these questions.

This is sound Christian wisdom for all, not just Anglicans. It reminds me of the old Anglo-Catholic radicalism that animated such priests as St. John Groser, V.A. Demant, not to mention Mervyn Stockwood (before he publicly debated Monty Python), Ken Leech, and the late, great layman R.H. Tawney. Anglo-Catholicism has long been a hotbed of Christian Socialism, but a very peculiar kind. Like almost everything Anglo-Catholic, there is a note of eccentricity about their politics. These are, after all, the same people who venerate Charles I as a Martyr. Yet the prevalence of Christian Socialist ideas among Anglo-Catholics of the classical period was so great that in 1918 a priest could place an ad in The Church Times for one “healthy revolutionary, good singing voice” (quoted in Spurr 78). In his authoritative study of T.S. Eliot’s religion, ‘Anglo-Catholic in Religion’ : T.S. Eliot and Christianity, Barry Spurr tells us of the man popularly known as the “Red Vicar”:

Perhaps the most famous [Anglo-Catholic country parish], apart from Hope Patten’s Walsingham…was Conrad Noel’s parish church at Thaxted, in the diocese of Chelmsford, where elements of Roman Catholicism were combined with neo-mediaevalism and extreme socialism. (Spurr 78).

ConradNoel

Rev. Conrad Noel. (Source).

Bishop North is cut from this cloth, having attended St. Stephen’s House for his theological studies. While I can’t confirm this, the House’s Wikipedia page says that “Many former students, in the tradition of the college, go on to minister in urban priority areas and parishes which suffer poverty and deprivation.” I am proud that I, too, will be an alumnus of that same college, steeped as it is in some of the better traditions of English Christianity. I may not be studying for ordained ministry, but I hope to profit by the example of those who are and have.

May God prosper Bishop North. Let those who can make a difference heed his cryand, with grace and bit of luck, perhaps some day he’ll bring his prophetic voice across the Tiber.

 

 

On the Birthday of Cardinal Baronius

BaroniusPortraitbw

The Venerable Cardinal himself. This portrait is one of the few where his Cardinalatial arms can be glimpsed, on the cover of a book in the foreground. (Source).

Readers of this blog will learn with no surprise that, having finished Lady Amabel Kerr’s biography of the Venerable Cardinal Baronius, my admiration for this great Oratorian has increased tenfold. As I have concluded the volume, so lovingly edited and reprinted by Mediatrix Press, on the very birthday of the illustrious historian, I thought I might reproduce here two extended passages from Baronius’s correspondence that I found particularly edifying.

The first passage is taken from a letter that Baronius wrote to one Justin Calvin. I have thus far been unable to locate much further information about said Calvin, unrelated, I think, to the heresiarch Reformer. Baronius’s Annales and extended correspondence with Justin led to the latter’s eventual conversion. Calvin (or Justus Baronius Calvinus, as he was called once he added Baronius’s name to his own) went on to become a priest and author of, among other works, an Apologia that justified his conversion. God manifestly works in mysterious ways within the long lives of religious orders. He is inordinately fond of strange and unintended coincidences.

Baronius writes to the young convert:

I return many thanks to the great and most high God, whose tender mercies, as sings David, are over all His works, for having called you out of darkness into His marvellous light. No benefit, no grace can be greater than this, so see that you cherish it carefully and guard it jealously. Do not indulge in paeans of victory; but rather remember that exhortation of the Apostle to walk circumspectly, not as unwise but as wise, redeeming the time because the days are evil…When the devil has been overthrown, he is apt to rise up with renewed vigour, and assault his former conqueror more violently than ever. Our Lord tells us of the wicked spirit who, having gone out of a man, did not rest, but fetched seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and retook by fraud the soul whence he had been driven…Be sure that he will seek you who have escaped him and are now fighting in the ranks of the Church. He may not betray his designs, for he fears lest Saul-converted into Paul by his reconciliation to the Church-should by the first of divine love deal destruction on the lies by which he is wont to overcome men. You, a soldier of Jesus Christ, beware, and lose not hold on the shield of faith which you have taken up. Be master of yourself, overcome yourself, and take heed that you, who were once in the employ of the prince of darkness, be not ashamed of being enrolled under the banner of Christ your Captain…You have, however, no real cause for fear, but only for joy. Rejoice if you are found worthy to suffer anything for the Catholic faith and in defence of the truth. I showed your letter to our Supreme Pastor, who rejoiced to hear the bleating of his one-time lost sheep, who has been found worthy to hear the voice of the Shepherd. He is addressing to you an Apostolic letter, by which he embraces you as if with extended arms, and by his written words places you on his shoulders rejoicing. In him you will always find a true pastor and father. (Kerr 295-96).

There is much rich advice here for any convert. Baronius also displayed his perennial wisdom when he replied to a number of fellow Cardinals who censured the liberty with which he defended the independence of the Church against the claims of various princes and potentatesabove all, the King of Spain. His response is inspiring for anyone who hopes to engage in the life of the mind. We read:

It behoves me to imitate our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, of whom the Gospel says that He taught as one having authority and not as the scribes, which means that He preached with truth and liberty, whereas they, in their adulation of Herod, yielded to that king’s taste in everything. Far be it from me, I repeat, to write like the scribes, and not declare the truth freely as did Christ. After Him I turn to the holy fathers of the Church, whose example, in writing, it behoves me to follow. In their maintenance of the truth in the face of those who attacked it, they displayed unbending constancy of soul. They did not make use of cringing, diluted, soft expressions, but, on the contrary, employed a language both grand and strong, mingling with it a sharpness of censure which converted their sentences into so many flashes of lightning. If you look through the Annals you will find scarcely a year in which some such example is not cited.

By studying the fathers and relating their acts I have by habit adopted their manner of speaking, which should not, in my opinion, be despised, for such speech is bestowed as a gift of the Spirit rather than obtained by human learning. When dealing with heretic or schismatic innovators, or else with princes who corrupt ecclesiastical discipline by their violation of the laws of the Church, or endeavour by their tyranny to reduce her to servitude, I have acquired the habit of writing with the indiscretion which you censure. The words of the prophet, “Cry, cease not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their wicked doings,” keep resounding in my ears as if from heaven. When Eugenius IV was made Pope, St. Bernard exhorted him to nominate Cardinals who should act as John did towards Herod, Moses towards the Egyptians, Phineas towards the fornicators, Elias towards the idolaters, Eliseus towards misers, Peter towards liars, Paul towards blasphemers, and, finally, as our Lord Himself acted towards traffickers in the temple. In other words he urged the Pope to choose men armed with zeal against sinners, who should act everywhere and in every way in such a manner as to sweep away the workers of iniquity. Such is the model drawn for us by the Holy Ghost, and if we do not conform ourselves to it we shall be convicted of deformity. (Kerr 318-20).

These are just some of the words which the Venerable Cardinal let slip as so much nectar from his pen and tongue. He was truly one of the greatest scholars that the Church has ever produced, and he revolutionized the discipline of ecclesiastical history. Yet Baronius always saw the Annales as a secondary work to the simple task of salvation. His humility was legendary, and Kerr’s portrait of Baronius captures this peculiar virtue in all its many expressions.

Fénelon writes somewhere that we are all saved with our disposition. And Baronius’s scholarly predilections color his devotional life. Kerr tells us of one of his favorite prayers in a brief but vivid scene:

It may be said that he never wasted a moment of that rare though precious time when it was permitted him to turn his thoughts directly to God. While driving about in his coach he used to pull down the blinds and give himself over unrestrainedly to the things of the soul, bidding his companion recall him to himself if anything occurred which required his attention. When thus shut into darkness he usually repeated the Holy Name over and over again, or else dwelt lovingly on his favourite interjection, “Eternitas, eternitas,” words which were but the epitome of his ceaseless longing for death and the state beyond the grave. (Kerr 282).

Baronius teaches us to use time—that is, our place in historywell. May we follow in his glorious footsteps and one day enjoy with him the eternity he so ardently desired.

On the Society of the Victims

Reparatrice et Cté au choeur

Reparation done well; before the Eucharist, in choir, among a monastic community, under the Rule of St. Benedict. Not in a largely-autonomous secret society. This Mectildian charism inspired that lower variant. (Source: Vultus Christi)

The Society of the Victims was a secret group founded by one Jacqueline-Aimée Brohon in late 18th century France. Their story is a strange one. Under Brohon’s leadership, they aspired to be a kind of Catholic Justice League, saving the world through Reparation. The goals and gender dynamics of the Society make it a potentially interesting example of how Catholic women led and took ownership of their own religious life before the advent of feminism. The Society’s theological grounding seems to depend not only upon the work of Mère Mectilde du Saint Sacrement (1614-1698), but possibly also on more esoteric sources such as the Kabbalah. If an historical theologian could find a complete edition of Brohon’s works in the original, there might be something useful there.

But in truth, we can also see serious problems with the Society, too. There is something cult-like in their self-conception, and some of their founder’s statements seem to draw very near to blasphemy. The few later scholars who paid any attention to Brohon did not hesitate to attribute her ideas to madness.

To my knowledge, there is only one source in English that tells the story of the mysterious Society. The following article is copied from pages 270-73 of the seminal 1817 text by Hannah Adams, A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan and Christian, Ancient and Modern. I have reproduced it here in the hope that it may be of use to those who study early modern religion, are versed in Benedictine spirituality, or otherwise take an interest in the spiritual legacy of Mother Mectilde de Bar. In transcribing the work, I have retained all quotes, capitals, spellings, and italics as close to the original as I could. This has resulted in certain evident anachronisms and irregularities, for which I beg the patience of my readers.

On a side note, Hannah Adams herself is worth looking intoa pioneer of comparative religion, a member of the Adams family of Boston, and the first American to work as a professional writer. One of the reasons I love studying religious history is coming across remarkable characters like her. Not to mention oddballs like Madame Brohon.

SOCIETY OF THE VICTIMS

On the 23rd of June, 1804, an imperial decree was issued for the suppression of those associations, known under the names of Fathers of the Faith, adorers of Jesus or Pacanaristes. This decree was provoked by a report of Portalis, minister of worship; a report extremely well written, printed, but not published. It has been translated into German, and therein speaks of a secret society of Victims, concerning which society the following account has been given by Gregoire, in his learned work, styled, “Histoire Des Sectes Religieuses.”

Catherine de Bar was born at Lorraine in 1619. She established, in the year 1657, at Rambervillers, a new religious order, for persons of her own sex, which spread rapidly in France. She adopted the rule of St. Benedict, but with some modifications, which she explained in a work, entitled, “The true spirit of the perpetual religious worshippers of the most holy sacrament of the altar.” The proper character of these nuns was that of being Victims, to expiate the sins committed against Jesus Christ in the celebration of the eucharist. Each day one of the Religious remains in her retreat from mattins until vespers. Her office is to be the expiatory Victim. When the sisters go to their dining room, the Victim is the last to leave the choir. She appears with a cord about her neck, and a torch in her hands. When they have all taken their places, she reminds them that they are all Victims, immolated for the sake of Jesus Christ: she then bows herself, returns to the choir during dinner, and remains there until after vespers, like a victim separated from the flock, destined for sacrifice.

Regnauld, a curate of Vaux, author of a work, entitled, “The Mystery of Iniquity,” makes mention of a work, entitled, “Les Galarics,” published in 1754, a species of mysticism in favour of convulsions. In the fourth galeric of Elias, the author asserts, “The victims are of the greatest importance. They are devoted for every crime, and each of them bears different parts in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This character will make them known to the Gentiles. The despair of the victims will expiate presumptuous confidence, as the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross has represented and expiated the sins into which mankind has fallen. They must bear to be culpable in the eyes of men, that they may complete what is wanting in the passion of our Saviour. They must bear the burdens of agner of God and men. They must be found amid the abodes of infamy, among robbers and murderers. Besides these public victims, there must be secret ones, delivered up to the horrible states of passion, despair, and distraction.”

Such probably were the ideas of the lady when on the eve of founding the order of the Victims. She had lived in Lorraine, where the houses of the Benedictines of the holy sacrament were numerous. She relates that at the age of nine years, having experienced in a sensible manner the protection of the blessed virgin, she consecrated herself to her service.

Madam Brohon, who was born at Paris, early devoted herself to the cultivation of letters. The Abbe la Porte, author of the “Literary History of French Women,” written in 1769, says, “It is now fifteen years since much mention was made fo the mind, the graces, and the talents of Madam Brohon, though she was then but eighteen years old.[“] He proceeds to give an analysis of a work of hers, entitled, “The Charms of Ingenuity.” It is a tale of about twenty eight pages. Bossy, the editor of the Mercury, has praised it.

Her life having been preserved, as she asserts, by a miracle of the blessed father Fourier, she determined to take the monastic vows. She repented having written romances, and consulted the Abbe Clement, who directed her for some time, and whose virtues she highly extolled.

The penitent devoted herself to retirement, for the space of fourteen years. At last she returned to Paris, and there died, the eighteenth of September, 1778, being upwards of forty years old.

From the time she quitted her literary career her active spirit exercised itself on ascetic subjects. Many of her works have been anonymously published by her admirers. Such as “Edifying Instructions on the fasting of Jesus Christ in the desert;” and, “The Manuel of the Victims of Jesus, or Extracts from the instructions which the Lord has given to his first victims.” This last work appeared in 1799, a volume in octavo of four hundred pages.

1774, writing to Beaumont, archbishop of Paris, she predicted that God was about to execute his judgments on the nations, to punish a tenth part of the earth, and to choose a new people; but first he would establish those victims, who would constantly immolate themselves to him. The Abbe de Garry would be their director. France, which had been the first christian kingdom, and which had distinguished itself by the purity of its faith, and its piety towards the holy virgin, would be the cradle of this new people, if its perversity did not deprive it of this benefit. If France rejected the Victims, God would take away its provinces; he would raise up a strange prince to devastate and enslave it. She pretended to foresee that the Spanish nation was to be the instrument of God’s vengeance. Great calamities would then fall upon the capital; the clergy, secular as well as regular, would be humbled; the sanctuaries would be abolished, in order to punish those who ought to have been their ornaments and glory. This was published in 1791.

In a letter to Lewis XV, then sick, Madam Brohon introduces the Almighty as a Mediator, and demands in his name Madam Victoire to be one of the victims. Sophia du Castelle, the daughter of a Notary de Peronne, a novitiate of the Benedictine de Gomer Fontaire, was also to be one of the victims. The number was fixed at twelve to represent the apostolic college with the same attributes. The college of Victims was composed of an equal number of men and women. The latter would have the honour of beginning the new mission; 1. as an effect of the love of Jesus Christ for his holy mother; 2. in order to reward the fidelity of the women to Jesus Christ in the course of his mortal life and passion; 3. in order to humble the masculine sex, who abuse their authority; and to provoke their jealousy when they see the zeal of feeble women. The male victims would be clothed with the sacerdotal garments. The women, however, would not be subordinate to them; they acknowledge no superiour but the bishops; but they would preserve a great respect for the body of pastors, united to the Pope, the head of the true church, who would receive an augmentation of power over faithful souls. Some auxiliaries would form a body for reserve out of which the successors of the Victims would be chosen.

The Victims, according to their own account, are predicted in the bible; without them an essential part of the Messiah would fail. They will be established near Jesus Christ, to fulfil the same functions for him that he has fulfilled for his Father. There are, say they, some faithful souls, who have grace enough to ensure their own salvation; but not enough to immolate themselves to divert the plague which menaces the human species. The Victims are consecrated to do it by taking upon themselves the general anathema. They are the centre and recipients of grace, the fountain from which it is distributed over the whole earth. They boasted of being advanced in glory above the monastic life, and having the same privileges as the angels, who would mourn if anything was wanting to complete their felicity. They asserted, that “they were very dear to the Saviour; that the precious blood which flowed from his side is the adorable ink with which their names are written;” and that “himself and the holy virgin have declared themselves the father and mother of the Victims, the promise of refusing them nothing.”

“The sacrifice of the mass will continue during the glorious reign of the Redeemer. Then there will be no monasteries. The Victims will be the vine and body of the church. Enoch and Elias will preside.”

The greatest crimes are committed between six o’clock in the evening and two in the morning; the Victims pass that time in prayer, and recite matins at midnight.

Each Victim has suspended to her neck a silver medal, on which is engraven the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary, to which they owe a perfect devotion.

Madam Brohon, being the first Victim, it will not be found surprising that she was adorned with extraordinary graces by Jesus, who was her common confessor. She declares, that he said to her one day, as he showed her the wounds on his side, “Seek me no more on the cross, I have yielded to thee my place, I shall no more be crucified, my Victims will be instead of me.”

In 1792, a consultation of many of the professors and doctors of the Sorbonne was printed on the following works: “Edifying Instructions” and “Edifying Reflections.” They reproached Madam Brohon, the author, with various impieties, and the most reprehensible ideas.*

*Gregoire’s Histoire Des Sectes Religieuses, vol. ii. p. 1, 2, 3, 4, &c.

Given the extreme scarcity of resources on the Society, we are beholden unto Gregoire-cum-Adams’s interpretation.

Nevertheless, there are problems with this account. Purely from a historiographical perspective, we should note that Gregoire is Adams’ only source. This introduces some measure of doubt. We have no way of assessing Gregoire’s biases, and no way of separating fact from interpretation.

Moreover, Adams leaves us without any explanation of what exactly the Sorbonne fathers found lacking in the then-deceased Brohon’s work. We could perhaps imagine some of the problems, based on what has already been told. But the sketch is so vague and so detached from the wider context of Brohon’s writings, French Society, and 18th century theology, that we really cannot infer the trouble with any degree of certainty. The condemnation certainly came during an inauspicious year, the same that saw the assault of the King at the Tuileries, the beginnings of unrest in the Vendée, the September Massacres, and the abolition of the monarchy. In fact, 1792 would later be known (for a short time) as Year One of the Revolutionary Calendar. Was the Sorbonne still reliable at that late date? How intriguing that Brohon’s prophecy of destruction and divine punishment for France should have been published only one year before the condemnation of her work came out, a full 13 years after her own death. It is entirely possible that her words were deployed in protest of the Revolution.

Sorbonne_17thc

The Sorbonne in the 17th century. (Source)

Neither Adams nor Gregoire make any such suggestion. Other than telling us about this censure and of the Society’s implication in the suppression of the Pacanaristes, we are left with no sense whatsoever of what the Society actually did, nor what became of it. Did the Victims meet together, or was their work carried out remotely? If they did congregate, were their acts based upon the rites of reparation established by Mother Mectilde? What kind of relationship, if any, did the Society maintain with Mectildean monasteries? Where were the Society’s main centers and circles? Who knew of them, and what was their broader reputation before the Sorbonne issued its decree? Did they exert any influence at all at court or in the Church of France, beyond the two letters to the Archbishop and the King?

Other sources shed a little more light.

Although he dismisses Brohon as a madwoman, Alfred Maury helpfully writes in the Revue des deux mondes (1854) that “Mlle. Brohon did not delay in exercising a veritable empire over distinguished men; with her hallucinations and her pretend prophecies, she occupied a mob of members of the clergy and of persons of high society” (Maury 474; translation is my own). With Adams, he details the letters to Beaumont and Louis XV, and adds that neither paid much attention at all to her demands. More recent scholars have turned their attention to Brohon. In their introduction to the 2011 study Victimes au féminin, Marc Kolakowski and Francesca Prescendi suggest that Brohon’s use of the word “victim” animated connotations of separation and sacrifice reaching all the way back to Roman antiquity (Kolakowski and Prescendi 31-32). This feature is perhaps unsurprising for late 18th century France, which was infused with a mania for all things Roman—culminating in the outburst of violent Republicanism that began on July 14, 1789.

Of course, there is another question that rises like a plume of smoke over all of these sources. No writer definitively confirms that the Society ever really existed. All we can glean is the plan of the alleged Foundress—her spirituality, her intentions for the group, the popularity we think she might have enjoyed in certain quarters, and the names of the other Victims she wanted to join the Society. But nowhere do we find any proof that the privileged circle of the Elect ever extended beyond her.

And thus we are left with one of the innumerable, tangled mysteries of religious history, one that draws together the spirituality of a 17th century Benedictine, the sacred delusions of an 18th century aristocrat, and the fires of the French Revolution.

Baronius on Religious Writing

BaroniusColor

Portrait of Cesar Cardinal Baronius. (Source)

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 workacademic, creative, and whatever I can throw up on this blogin 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.

The Orange Pope

Yesterday was the 327th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, when the forces of Protestant Britain defeated the Catholic Irishmen fighting for James II, rightful king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It is a black day for many Catholics, in no small part because many of them descend from Irish communities that remember the oppression that followed under the penal laws. In Northern Ireland today, July 12th remains a divisive date marked by sectarian tensions and the triumphalist pageantry of the native Scotch-Irish Protestants. One wonders whether the new Conservative-DUP alliance in the Commons will have had any affect on the infamous marches of the Orange Order, founded in remembrance of today’s events.As cursed as the memory of the Boyne remains for Catholics today, it’s worth remembering that things were a bit more complex in the 17th century. I enjoy a good bit of Jacobite nostalgia as much as the next trad, but I also think a more honest assessment of history is worth exploring. Human life is a complicated thing, and the strange story of the Williamite War is riddled with contradictions.

Tremendous irony lies at the heart of the Boyne and what it represents. William of Orange, the stalwart champion of Protestantism, overthrew the Catholic James while secretly in league with Pope Innocent XI.

InnocentXI

His Holiness, Innocent XI P.M. (Source).

Innocent’s political priorities centered on maintaining the balance of power in Europe. In 1690, that meant checking the bellicose Louis XIV. Ever since the marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, the British Crown had been in an ever-closer relationship with France. James II was Louis’s only real ally, and Innocent knew it. The Pope also seems to have considered James a bit dull. He is known to have found his methods in the re-conversion of England more than a little imprudent (it was, in short, a massive failure of triangulation between the vitriolically anti-Catholic Whigs and the pro-Establishment Tories. James was not shrewd enough to manage the two, and ended up pleasing no one).

There was another threat on the table. The future of Catholic France was at stake. Louis XIV had, on the one hand, made moves designed to give him the appearance of Catholic zeal. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes, though not approved by the Pope, is perhaps the greatest example. More troublingly, Louis had rammed through the Four Articles that so antagonized the Papacy by more or less establishing Gallicanism throughout the land. Innocent fought against these measures.

Things came to a boiling point when the Pope, in league with almost all the crowned heads of Europe, clashed with Louis over who would fill the see of Cologne. When the election proved inconclusive, Innocent decided in favor of his own candidate. To quote the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Louis XIV retaliated by taking possession of the papal territory of Avignon, imprisoning the papal nuncio and appealing to a general council. Nor did he conceal his intention to separate the French Church entirely from Rome. The Pope remained firm.”

Enter the Dutch.

image.png
Willem III, Prince of Orange, King of England and Stadtholder, by Godfried Schalcken. c. 1692-97. (Source)

It is unclear to what extent Innocent might have aided William of Orange. An old legend current at the time asserts that the Pope had financed the expedition with a secret loan of 150,000 scudi. As one reporter puts it, “The sum, equivalent to more than £3.5 million today, equalled the Vatican’s annual budget deficit.” There is, it seems, some truth to this statement. The legend has been supported by more recent research, such as that conducted by the fiction authors Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti. They uncovered evidence that corroborated the longstanding claims of other historians.

Which leads us to a singular painting by Pieter van der Meulen, The Entry of King William Into Ireland. It has played a controversial role in Northern Irish history. Purchased by the Unionist government of Ulster in 1933, it originally hung in the Great Hall of Stormont. After shifting locations several times, eventually the Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley (of all people) hung it in his office. It is presumably the only picture of the Pope in glory that Dr. Paisley ever liked.

(c) Northern Ireland Assembly; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Entry of King William Into Ireland, Pieter van der Meulen. (c) Northern Ireland Assembly; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. (Source).

So, why would a Pope act against a Catholic monarcheven covertly?

It seems that he sold Britain and Ireland to save France…and by extension, continental Catholicism. It was a gamble, and a costly one at that. But it seems to have worked in the short run. Although France would later see a terrible anti-Catholic upheaval of its own, Louis was forced to abandon his immediate moves towards schism. He did not become a French Henry VIII. Among all the terrible things that followed the Boyne, at least that one very important good came of it.

 

 

The Oratorian Option

StPhilipNeriandEnglishSeminarians

St. Philip Neri blessing the departing seminarians of the English College. Fr. V.J. Matthews tells us that St. Philip would hail the seminarians, whose college is directly across from San Girolamo, with the words Salvete Flores Martyrum, “Hail, flowers of the Martyrs” (Matthews 85). Edited photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.  (Source).

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 andmore scandalouslyCatholic 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).

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A blasphemous mock-Papal procession during the 1527 Sack of Rome. (Source).

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).

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Fr. Frederick William Faber, founder of the Brompton Oratory in London. (Source)

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 filmsa 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 Oratoryeven in sweltering heat and downpours of rain.

Borromini Facade of Oratorio dei Filippini (as drawn by Barriere, 1720 engraving)

Borromini’s facade of the Roman Oratory, sketched 1720’s. (Source).

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.

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The effigy of St. Philip Neri, created from life once he could no longer lead the pilgrimage to the Seven Churches. Currently in possession of the Roman Oratory. (Source).

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 worldas 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 discussionand, 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.

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The Venerable Cardinal Caesar Baronius, author of the Annales Ecclesiastici, father of Church history. (Source).

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).

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St. Philip urging Baronius to write the Annales. (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 geniuserudition 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).

CARDINAL JOHN HENRY NEWMAN PICTURED IN 1865 PHOTO

Newman never abandoned the life of the mind. (Source).

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 lifeacademic 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.

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The Oratorian tradition of scholarship continues today, as with, inter alia, the work of Fr. Jonathan Robinson of the Toronto Oratory. Here is the cover of his 2015 book, In No Strange Land: The Embodied Mysticism of Saint Philip Neri. (Source).

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.

Contemplate Beauty

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.

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Baroque apse of Santa Maria in Vallicella, by Pietro da Cortona (Source).

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.

Federico_Barocci_-_Virgin_and_Child_with_Sts_Simon_and_Jude_(Madonna_di_San_Simone)

Madonna di San Simone, by Federico Barocci, c. 1567. (Source).

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.

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The Entombment of Christ, Caravaggio, c. 1603-04. (Source).

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).

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“L’Angelo mostra a San Filippo Neri un dipinto della Vergine con Bambino e San Giovannino,” Circle of Carlo Maratti (Source).

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 saintshis 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 himselfusually 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.

MassofSanFilippo

“Madonna con Bambino in trono e san Filippo Neri,” Giacomo Zoboli (Source)

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.

QuarantOreLondon

The Forty Hours’ Devotion at the London Oratory. (Source).

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, Manchesterin short, wherever the spirit of St. Philip prevails over all rivals and distractionswe 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.

San-Filippo-in-estasi-Guido-Reni-001

From Guido Reni. It seems only appropriate that St. Philip should be so frequently depicted fully vested for Mass. (Source).

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 assentedbut 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.

Conclusion

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 contributesis 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 charismdomesticity, localism, intellectual rigor, humility, collegiality, aesthetics, urbanity, prudence, and love of the worldcan 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.

Benedict Shrugged

AbandonedCatholicChurch

“Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang…”—Shakespeare, Sonnet LXXIII. (Source).

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 goalto bring up the next generation as faithful Christians, and thereby preserve Christianity as suchis 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 objectionsbut once again, I digress. I wanted to start off with the praiseworthy parts of the book.

NorciaMonks

The Benedictine monks of Norcia, one of the greatest religious families in the Church today. I had occasion to hear their spiritual father and founder, Dom Cassian Folsom, say Mass at my fist parish, St. Brigid’s in Johns Creek, Georgia. I believe I was even blessed by him at Communion, since he came before I was received. A genuine saint. (Source).

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 proposalssuch 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,

IdolatrousTrump

Trumpolatry. Unless you read it, as I do, as Jesus telling Trump to resign. (Source).

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 goaland 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,

God'sNotDead

That’s enough, David A.R. White. (Source)

…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).

YoungPopeChair

Christian art done well: The Young Pope. (Source).

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.

Pether, Sebastian, 1790-1844; Moonlit Lake with a Ruined Gothic Church, a Church and Boatmen

“Moonlit Lake with a Ruined Gothic Church, a Church and a Boatmen.” Sebastian Pether. (Source).

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.

Bad Historiography

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.

OckhamStainedGlassWindow

William of Ockham, the great bogeyman of Dreher’s historical narrative. (Source).

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 Holocaustyet 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 textand 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 sterilitya 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.

Pieter_Brueghel_the_Elder_-_The_Dutch_Proverbs_-_Google_Art_Project

Dreher doesn’t take account of the complexities of Medieval life. (Source).

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?

burningofjews-744x566

The enforcement of Christendom’s social boundaries; the burning of Jews. (Source).

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 survivalindeed, the survival of Judaism as a wholehappened 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 modernityor more properly, modernitiesemerged. 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 modernitya 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.

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Transhumanism gets no mention in The Benedict Option. (Source)

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.

Bad Theology

Enough of the historical criticism. The book’s deeper problem lies in its spiritual and theological defects.

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The ruins of Whitby Abbey. (Source).

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 Churchunderstood correctlyhas 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.

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Icon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy, which commemorates the triumph of iconodulic Christianity over the heresy of iconoclasm (Source).

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 waysomething like the “Ecumenism of Blood” described by Pope Francis—and doesn’t lead to the confusion of important theological and ecclesiological distinctions. 

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John Henry Newman; Ex-Branch Theorist. (Source).

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 sufferingthe Way of the Crossas 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 eternalthat is, if we do not regard matter, and even time itself, as rooted firmly in God’s beingthen 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.

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The Mass of St. Gregory. (Source).

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.

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The Marburg Colloquy, where Luther and Zwingli argued about the Eucharist and failed to come up with a Protestant consensus on the sacraments. Dreher is an accidental Zwinglian. (Source).

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 whator rather, whogives 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 distractionvenially 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.

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There is a 100% certainty that this guy would anathematize Rod Dreher. But also me, so go figure. (Source).

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 pricethe 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.

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Schemamonks. (Source).

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.

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Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokolamsk, implacable and perennial foe of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. (Source).

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.

Bad Ethos

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.

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The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey. (Source).

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.

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“Christ’s Descent Into Hell,” Hieronymous Bosch, c. 1550. A painting that resembles Dreher’s view of the world, where a few fragile saints huddle against the overwhelming hellscape – and as in The Benedict Option, you can hardly see Christ at all. (Source).

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 Churchnot war, not Jihad, not environmental collapse, not racism, not economic downturn, not secularism as such, not consumerism, not Transhumanism, not euthanasia, not even abortionoccupies such a shadowy and potent throne in Dreher’s imagination. Everywhere looms the deadly threat of the Great Gay Menace.

Rowan Williams, among others, is right to call out the book’s single-minded obsession with this issue. Over at The New Statesmen, he writes,

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 fearor, more precisely, what the book fearsis 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.

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Hieromonk Seraphim Rose had a similarly dark view of modernity, but his ethos is more respectable. A homosexual who repented, converted, and entered a monastery, Rose is now widely revered by many Orthodox as a saint. (Source).

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 prejudiceand 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.

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Atlas Shrugged (Source).

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.

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With The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher confirms his place as the Ayn Rand of conservative Christianity. (Source).

Conclusion

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.

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Glastonbury Abbey. (Source).

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 worldtragic, sinful, broken though it may beat the foot of the Eucharistic God. We can never love it more than He does.

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The Traditional Mass is not Medieval, but Modern. Yet that does not stop it from also being timeless. (Source).