The Kings’ Novena

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Frontispiece of the Eikon Basilike (1649) – (Source)

It occurred to me today that one could pray a novena between the day of Louis XVI’s death and that of Charles I, which I pointed out to my friend, Connor McNeill. He kindly whipped this little service up, drawing upon the offertory antiphons and collects for the service of Charles I in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. It has been suitably altered to accommodate both kings, and indeed, all Christian rulers.

TheKingsNovena

Mormon Artists You Should Know

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Wulf Barch’s prize-winning piece, The Labrynth, or the Book of Walking Forth by Day. 2011. (Source)

One of my recent discoveries has been the Mormon art world, formerly a dark continent for me. With the passing of the late Mormon president, I thought I might offer a window into an aesthetic realm that, I suspect, is still largely unknown to many. Most non-LDS people will have heard of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Some may be aware of the imaginative Book of Mormon illustrations by Arnold Friberg. And anyone who’s been on the internet long enough will recognize the utterly bonkers right-wing propaganda produced by Jon McNaughton. However, few know the very impressive offerings by contemporary Mormon artists.

 

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Abinadi before King Noah (Abinadi Appearing before King Noah). Arnold Friberg. Note the curious mixture of Biblical motifs and Central American aesthetics. We have here a typically Mormon image. (Source)

Apparently, BYU has an excellent Fine Arts department. The jewel in their crown is Wulf Barsch, a Bavarian émigré who studied under the Bauhaus Masters, themselves trained by Klee and Kandinsky. After some flirtations with the Viennese school of Fantastic Realism, best represented by Ernst Fuchs, Barsch, we read, “studied Egyptian and Islamic culture and history.” These influences would come to the fore in his later work. He was baptized a Mormon in 1966, went to BYU to study Fine Art, and stayed there for some forty years.

Barsch’s work is marked by a few cardinal motifs. He always uses vivid colors, often structured by two juxtaposed elements: a blurred realism and a lightly sketched geometric design. This combination gives his work the slightly dizzy air of a dream – or, better yet, of a mystic vision, of some terrible sacral truth unveiling itself. The viewer becomes the prophet.

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The Real Voyage of Discovery, Wulf Barsch. (Source)

Barsch’s study of Islamic art and its long tradition of sacred geometry has borne much fruit throughout his career.

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The Measure of All Things, Wulf Barsch. 2009. (Source)

Barsch’s prophetic accents are heightened and canalized by a keen ritual sensibility. On those occasions when he does depict architectural details, they usually reflect the norms of temples: Classical, Masonic, and Mormon.

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Jupiter Square, Wulf Barsch. Note the use of a Magic Square. (Source)

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Et in Arcadia Ego, Wulf Barsch. 2010. The tiled floor, the pair of broken columns, and the orientalist flavor of the pyramids and palms all suggest a Masonic aesthetic. (Source)

He will sometimes write on the painting, adding a secondary symbolic layer to the image.

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Title Unknown, Wulf Barsch. No doubt this will be of particular interest to fans of a e s t h e t i c s (Source)

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Title Unknown, Wulf Barsch. (Source).

Observe, if you will, the piece above. Looking at this painting, we are struck by the contrast between the garlanded, barely visible columns and the stark yellow and red scene beyond. The most immediate impression comes from the color, which forms, as it were, the raw material of the art-world we see. Yet we can also glimpse geometric drawings in the yellow field and the outline of the columns. That which is artificial melts away before the manifestation of the absolute. Lesser being fades, even as it is heightened beyond its limitations under the demands of human artifice. Yet even in contemplating the absolute, we recognize something like our own reason. There is an intelligence there, an ideal that is only dimly mirrored in this dark world below. In short, Barsch has presented a model of mystical experience.

Or take another painting. Below, we see is, at first glance, little more than a tropical landscape. We can feel the heat through the stereoscopically blurred palm fronds. Yet upon further consideration, we find a celestial scene in the blue window – an impossibly delicate set of constellations in a field of bright bleu celeste. There is at once a sense of familiarity and otherness. Are we inside or out? We experience a de-familiarization of the scene. This sensation comes, appropriately enough, through the viewer’s discovery of heaven in the painting. Likewise, the soul feels a similar sudden reversal upon the discovery that there is a God. The subtle intrusion of the transcendent changes the way we look around us.

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Title Unknown, Wulf Barsch. (Source)

Barsch is intensely interested in the way the numinous appears through creation. His vision is almost sacramental, with one important caveat. The presence of the transcendent that he describes is not resting in the material realm but in its ideal configuration. He represents this ideal world, as well as our access to it, by use of the Labyrinth, a frequent symbol.

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The Labyrinth, Wulf Barsch. 2006. Note that it lies within the cliff, under the trees. (Source)

The same idea animates his Magic Square (2006). The titular magic square appears in the silhouetted palm tree, as if exposing its underlying mathematical nature. It’s as if Barsch is showing us God’s blueprints.

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Magic Square, Wulf Barsch. 2006. (Source)

Barsch has won multiple awards, including the prestigious Rome Award, over his long and prolific career. He has also carried his talents across media. For example, here is one of his lithographs.

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Title Unknown, Wulf Barsch. (Source)

Barsch continues to exert a major influence on the oeuvre of younger Mormon artists. Whitney Johnson, David Habben, and Nick Stephens all exhibit signs of Barsch’s lingering artistic vision.

A very different representative of contemporary Mormon artistic trends is Brian Kershisnik. An American who originally trained in ceramics at BYU, Kershisnik later moved to painting. He now produces spiritually sensitive figurative images that somehow capture the freshness and simplicity of the American West.

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Descent from the Cross, Brian Kershisnik. Currently on display at BYU Museum of Art as part of their exhibit, “The Interpretation Thereof: Contemporary LDS Art and Scripture.” (Source)

His religious art is very often in conversation with the canons of the Western tradition. Nevertheless, he infuses a certain ordinariness into scenes from the Bible. If Barsch presents a spiritual vision drawn from Mormonism’s Masonic and Orientalist past, then Kershisnik returns to its Low-Church Protestant roots. Even his crowds of angels look just like us.

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Nativity, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

Those angels, by the way, are profoundly interested in human life. Even fairly quotidien scenes betray an unseen presence.

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Divine Inspiration, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

Many of his characters are, quite literally, rough around the edges. In them, we can detect the faintest hint of Chagall. Particularly as so many of Kershisnik’s non-Biblical subjects seem to inhabit a stylized world hovering on the edge of allegory.

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Dancing on a Very Small Island, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

Kershisnik is fundamentally an artist of human dignity, and the quiet joy that springs from that dignity.

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Holy Woman, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

He also brings an understated sense of humor to much of his material, as in Jesus and the Angry Babies.

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Jesus and the Angry Babies, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

Note in A Quiet Shining Dance of Sisters how Kershisnik draws together line (the mirroring of the two profiles) and color (gold) and texture (the mosaic effect in the upper half of the image) to suggest a spiritual union that goes beyond the merely physical elements of the titular dance.

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A Quiet Shining Dance of Sisters, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

There are a few other Mormon artists worth knowing. Take, for instance, painter and illustrator Michal Luch Onyon, whose colorful and somewhat naive works are sure to delight. Or landscape artist Jeffrey R. Pugh, whose bold and strong brushstrokes evince the confidence of the West. He also created one of the more numinously beautiful depictions of Joseph Smith’s alleged vision, Early Spring, 1820. Finally, take a look at Nnadmi Okonkwo’s sculptures. The Nigerian’s graceful depictions of the human form are a testament to the respect afforded to women, and strike a beguiling balance between traditional African forms and American methods. His work is a testament not only to his considerable talent but to the great lengths which the Mormon church has traveled in its delayed acceptance of black members.

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Title Unknown, Michal Luch Onyon. (Source)

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Title Unknown, Michal Luch Onyon. (Source)

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Mountain Aspen, Michal Luch Onyon. (Source)

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A Day in the Life, Jeffrey R. Pugh. (Source)

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Cumulus Creepers, Jeffrey R. Pugh. (Source)

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Early Spring, 1820, Jeffrey R. Pugh. (Source)

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Friends, Nnamdi Okonkwo. (Source)

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Guardian, Nnamdi Okonkwo. (Source)

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Title Unknown, Nnamdi Okonkwo. (Source)

The remarkable proliferation of Mormon fine artnot merely the kitschy stuff which characterizes so much religiously inflected work todayis certainly a sign of the faith’s expansion and self-confidence. Catholics should watch the continuing development of a specifically Mormon aesthetic as the LDS presence in society continues to grow.

The Triumph of Color: Notes on the Anglo-Catholic Aesthetic

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The Altar Mosaics of Keble College Chapel, Oxford, designed by William Butterfield (Source)

Two facts have become steadily clearer to me over the course of my life as a Roman Catholic. First, that we don’t do beauty like we used to. Our churches are rife with liturgical art as dated and outré as the plastic on your great aunt’s furniture. Many of our houses of worship are stuck in the 1970’s, riddled with patently ugly, non-figurative depictions of Christ and the saints. Abstract windows cast unseemly splashes of light over softwood pews. And there are far too many carpets. My own old parish at UVA, St. Thomas Aquinas, is just now overcoming its long “awkward phase” (symbolized by an enormous chrome statue of the Angelic Doctor that looked like a cross between Buddha and the Tin Man – unhappily placed right across the street from the Chabad House).

In short, we have a problem with beauty.

The second thing I realized is that the Anglo-Catholicsor at least, those corners of the Anglo-Catholic world that held onto their patrimonydo not. And it seems to me that much of the renewal in sacred art that we’re witnessing today is indebted to the Anglo-Catholics, as any browsing on New Liturgical Movement will show. There is a distinctive style associated with the AC tradition. My hope is that by examining a few of its exponents, we might come to get a better glimpse of the art that is renewing our own Church today.

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852)

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Tiles designed by A.W.N. Pugin. (Source)

A.W.N. Pugin, it must be said, was not an Anglo-Catholic. He was a Roman convert. But the story of the Anglo-Catholic style must begin with the Gothic Revival that Pugin led. He radically and even polemically departed from the old norms of Anglican liturgical design. Pugin hated the High-and-Dry preaching tabs and whitewashed walls and triple-decker pulpits of the 18th century Church of England. For Pugin, all of that represented the moral and spiritual degradation of the British people from a purer, Medieval ideal.

So he turned instead to the architecture and design of the Middle Ages. He reintroduced conical vestments to England. He set up altars with gilded angels and smiling saints and all manner of gloriously decorated tiles. He designed chalices and monstrances. He almost single-handedly re-established the rood screen as a typical feature of English churches.

Above all, he built. Pugin is perhaps best known as an architect. His first publication after he converted to Roman Catholicism was a highly polemical text entitled Contrasts (1836). He attempted to show, by way of (rather unfair) architectural differences, that the religious and social makeup of the Middle Ages was decidedly better than the squalid life of post-Reformation modernity.

It’s ahistorical nonsense, but very pretty ahistorical nonsense at that.

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One page of Pugin’s Contrasts. He’s making a threefold argument: aesthetic, religious, and socio-political. One can start to see here the origins of the Victorian Socialism associated at once with Anglo-Catholics and the likes of William Morris’s arts-and-crafts movement. There is no doubt some irony in this, as John Ruskin hated him. Yet it is hard to imagine the Pre-Raphaelites coming about without both Pugin and Ruskin (Source).

Consider how radical Pugin’s claim in Contrasts really is. He’s not saying that Catholic architecture is better than Protestant forms. He’s saying that the only Christian architecture is Gothic. It doesn’t matter if the Catholic Church had promulgated and supported all kinds of other schools over the years. The only truly Christian style was that which reigned at the high noon of Christendom. The rest were compromises with paganism. Is it all that surprising that Pugin and Newman never really cooperated? Oratorianism is a Counter-Reformation phenomenon, and both of the first English Oratories were built in a grand Neo-Baroque style. There was an amusing spat between Faber and Pugin when the latter visited St. Wilfrid’s, where he would later build a church. What started off as a friendly chat turned into a vigorous fight. Faber inveighed against rood screens and Pugin accused Faber of favoring the “pagan architecture” of, inter alia, Italy. Alas.

Pugin, however, was probably more influential than Newman or Faber when it came to setting 19th century tastes in liturgical art. As the father of the Gothic Revival, he inspired generations of imitators and rivals (including some on this list). Many of those architects were widely respected in their own day. None of them could boast of designing the interior of the House of Lords and the architecture of Big Ben. Pugin achieved a wide success that nevertheless remained rooted in his liturgical work. Everything came from his fundamentally ecclesial imagination.

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Frontispiece of Pugin’s An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England (1843). Baroque, Palladian, Renaissance, and Byzantine architects need not apply. (Source)

But it was, alas, a sick imagination. Pugin was always an odd personality. He suffered a mental breakdown at the age of 40, and ended up in Bedlam. He died shortly thereafter.

His legacy is clear. Pugin represents the triumph of color over the barren church design of the previous century. God comes to us in sacraments, and sacraments are material. Pugin’s work can be read as a celebration of matter in all the various hues and tints of the rainbow. He intended to use his art as a way of reviving the Catholic religion in England. He found a ready audience in the new wave of ritualists then entering the Anglican clergy. It would probably not be too great a stretch to say that, as founder of the Gothic Revival, Pugin gave the Oxford Movement its own aesthetic, distinct from Roman Baroque and Evangelical austerity.

William Butterfield (1814-1900) and Alexander Gibbs

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The interior of Keble College Chapel, Oxford. Designed by the highly original Neo-Gothic architect, William Butterfield. (Source)

Another architect who worked alongside and after Pugin was William Butterfield. Like, Pugin, his churches dot the English landscape. But Butterfield’s work is distinguished by a salient feature not found in that of his colleague. He extended Pugin’s use of elaborate interior color to external polychromy. One can glimpse this in his most famous commission, Keble College, built in the 1870’s.

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Keble College, Oxford. Established as a tribute to the founder of the Oxford Movement, John Keble. (Source)

His design was extremely controversial at the time, derided as “the ‘holy zebra’ style” by detractors. I have heard, though I cannot trace the source, that others described the chapel as “an elephant wearing a sweater.”

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Exterior of Keble College. Photo taken by author.

Butterfield synthesized Pugin’s Gothic Revival with the insights of John Ruskin, who wrote positively of Renaissance polychromy in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). Ruskin was another enormous influence on the Anglo-Catholic style, whose influence I will not attempt to trace in full here. Regardless, it is worth noting that Butterfield took Ruskin’s lessons to heart. Keble College is just one of many examples one could point to that exhibit the same style. Another is the fabulous All Saints Margaret Street, a dizzying Neo-Gothic mirage tucked away in Fitzrovia.

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Two angels in a Keble mosaic. (Source)

Coming into Keble College, you are assailed by the sheer riot of colors. It’s almost like walking into a giant candy store, only the wonderful smells of chocolate and mint have been replaced by incense and tapers. That delightful sensory onslaught stems in part from the other great feature of the chapel, the radiant mosaics by Alexander Gibbs. There is something naive in the way Gibbs’s mosaics portray the human subject. One is reminded of the illustrations in a children’s book, or perhaps even a cartoon.

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The Noah mosaic, Keble College Chapel. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP. (Source)

Take, for example, the mosaic of Noah offering sacrifices. There is hardly any hue or tint left unused. Note the range of colors seen just in the fire on the left – there’s even a green flame! Meanwhile, the dove which hovers over the scene is not pure white, but flecked with yellow and orange, as if already anticipating Pentecost. And no two halos are alike.

This tendency towards the illustrative and cartoonish will become a major hallmark of Anglo-Catholic style throughout the rest of the period.

Sir Ninian Comper (1864-1960)

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Cope designed by Sir Ninian Comper, depicting Our Lady of the Cenacle at Pentecost. (Source)

Another architect and liturgical designer who left his mark on the style of Anglican Catholicism was Sir Ninian Comper. His works are immediately recognizable by their lavish use of gilding, a charming mixture of Gothic and Neoclassical elements, elaborate recessing, and odd penchant to depict Christ as a blond youth.

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Reredos of St. Sebastian, Downside Abbey. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP (Source).

Comper worked for both Anglican and Roman Catholics. A fine example of this latter sphere of influence can be seen in his magnificent altars at Downside Abbey. However, as I am attempting to consider what art produced a distinctively Anglo-Catholic style, I will limit my inquiry to those commissions he completed for the Church of England. To that end, two sites in Oxford deserve attention.

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The Blessed Sacrament Altar, Pusey House, Oxford. (Source)

Pusey House is a “house of sacred learning” affiliated with the C of E in Oxford. Built as a monument to Edward Bouverie Pusey, Tractarian and one-time colleague of John Henry Newman, Pusey House remains a stalwart bastion of Anglo-Catholicism and High Churchmanship more broadly (not to mention some excellent gin). Its Blessed Sacrament Altar is a remarkable representative of Comper’s work.

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The golden art of Sir Ninian Comper. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP. (Source)

Both the windows and the baldachin at Pusey’s Blessed Sacrament Chapel were designed by Comper. Above, you can see two examples of one of his favorite motifs, which I call “Jesus as a Blond Youth.”

Sir Ninian was a fine craftsman of baldachins. Although examples remain which show Christ or the Virgin, his signature seems to have been the Holy Ghost descending as a radiant dove. The Pusey House baldachin is one such example.

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Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP. (Source)

Here we can see in the putti just a touch of the cartoonish, like we observed in Butterfield and Gibbs. Yet Comper was quite capable of producing work of a very different nature. His baldachin at the monastery of the Cowley Fathers, now St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, is notable for its stark beauty.

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St. Stephen’s House Chapel, Oxford. Photo taken by author.

Yet even here we can see Corinthian capitals adorning the columns. It wouldn’t be recognizable as a Comper piece without them.

Like many on this list, Comper contributed to the revival of devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. The Anglican shrine possesses “three stained glass windows, the Holy House altar and two sets of vestments” by Comper.

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Sir Ninian Comper’s altar at Walsingham. A classic example of his work, drawing together numerous Comperian motifs: gilding, cherubim, Corinthian capitals, a certain illustrative naïveté, elaborated decorated canopy, and the use of sunbursts. The last motif will also mark the work of another major Anglo-Catholic stylist. (Source)

What did Comper contribute to the Anglo-Catholic style? He took the tendency towards extravagance, already seen in Pugin and Butterfield, to a new height. Yet he was able to blend eras seamlessly, mixing elaborate Gothic and Classical features into a new and distinctive style. His work represents Anglo-Catholicism at its most confident height, the Congress Movement of the 1920’s and 30’s. Our next two artists also produced their most important works in conjunction with that great age of Anglo-Catholic action.

Martin Travers and the Society of SS. Peter and Paul (1886-1948)

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An Advent illustration by Martin Travers. Notice his unique font, as well as the English version of the Introibo with the Virgin and Child. (Source)

During the 1920’s and 30’s, an increasingly resurgent Anglo-Catholicism reasserted itself. Several major conferences, known as the Anglo-Catholic Congresses, brought together thousands of movement leaders and adherents as well as leading to the proliferation of numerous theological tracts. One year, the Congress organizers even exchanged messages of ecumenical good will with the bishops of various Eastern Orthodox churches. Here was the age of a sophisticated and confident Anglo-Catholicism that could win converts like T.S. Eliot, who entered the church in 1927.

Yet in spite of the show of unity suggested by the Congresses, the truth was that the Anglo-Catholics were deeply divided. One nasty fissure was the liturgy. Should Anglo-Catholics use the Book of Common Prayer? Some said yes. Others, however, thought it was a deeply compromised document arising out of schism and heresy. They turned instead to the Mass of St. Pius V. As they couldn’t just celebrate a Latin Mass, they translated it, with a few Cranmerian collects here and there, into sacral English. The result was the famous Anglican Missal or Knott Missal.

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The emblem of the Society of SS. Peter and Paul. (Source)

The missal was produced by the Society of SS. Peter and Paul, the leading body that represented Anglo-Papalism within the C of E. Generally, Anglicans associated with the Society considered the Pope the legitimate head of the Western Church, took part in Marian devotions, carried on Eucharistic processions, and celebrated a rite nearly indistinguishable from the Tridentine Mass. They worked against other Anglo-Catholics who sought a distinctively English liturgical ethos rooted in the Sarum Rite.

The Society chose an artist named Martin Travers to illustrate many of their publications, including the Anglican Missal. The work Travers produced would continue to shape the Anglo-Catholic aesthetic in profound ways.

For one thing, he illustrated the Mass. His vision of the liturgy was strictly Roman. You can see that he had a marked preference for Baroque vestments and altars in his rendition of “The Elevation of the Host.”

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Travers’s extremely Latinate liturgical tastes dovetailed well with the spirituality promulgated by the Society of SS. Peter and Paul. (Source)

In keeping with the trends we have already observed in Gibbs and Comper, Travers’s illustrations often have a naive quality about them. The works are at once highly complex and centered on a frank simplicity.

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A requiem illustration by Martin Travers. (Source)

Yet they retain a certain elegance and poise, as with this Marian image. We can see here one of his favorite motifs, figures set in sunbursts. It recurs again and again throughout his body of work.

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A depiction of Mary and the Christ Child over London. (Source)

Yet Travers was by no means simply a draughtsman and illustrator. He also produced altarpieces. His style was heavily Baroque, though he was known to occasionally draw upon Art Deco elements. Looking at anything by Travers, we get the sense of a consummate master pulling together a number of traditions with ease. The aesthetic coup he achieved was the natural parallel to the spiritual ascent of the Anglicans most devoted to a reunion with the Apostolic churchesAnglicans who made it their business to blend the Roman and English patrimonies in one sacral event.

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Travers’s High Altar at St. Mary’s, Bourne Street, London. (Source)

Like Comper, Travers was also known to remodel the work of older generations. Here we can see the fine reredos he worked upon in the Wren church of St. Magnus the Martyr, London. The Church was (and, I believe, remains) a bastion of Congress Anglo-Catholicism.

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High Altar at St. Magnus the Martyr, London. (Source)

Travers represents an Anglo-Catholic Baroque turn at a time when the larger movement was more confident than ever in the “Corporate Reunion” so long hoped for. Although that momentous reconciliation never took place, it inspired a delightful appropriation of Tridentine aesthetics. Through his drawings and ecclesiastical design, Travers was the chief conduit by which the continental tradition of liturgical art infused the Church of England.

Enid Chadwick (1902-1987)

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A marvelous and very Anglican polyptych by Enid Chadwick. The photo was taken by a friend of mine, Bishop Chandler Jones of the Anglican Province of America, who blogs over at Philorthodox. From left to right, the figures are: St. Uriel, Blessed Charles the Martyr, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Michael, Our Lady of Walsingham with Our Lord, St. Gabriel, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Edward the Confessor, and St. Raphael. (Source)

The last artist I will profile here is probably well known to those of you who keep tabs on the Catholic blogosphere. Although largely forgotten for decades, the art of Enid Chadwick has made a comeback since the advent of the Internet. Her wonderful 1957 children’s book, My Book of the Church’s Year, has been put online, and images from it keep popping up on various feasts.

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A typical Chadwick illustration from My Book of the Church’s Year. (Source)

In her work, we see once again the quintessentially Anglo-Catholic simplicity amidst ornamentation. The resemblance to the mosaics of Gibbs or the drawings of Travers is striking. Her illustrations for My Book of the Church’s Year, like all her illustrations, have a tender humanity about them. Yet they also breathe of a patriotic sentiment. Note that in the pages for March, St. David and St. Patrick are both shown with the simplified arms of their respective nations. It is. after all, an Anglican book. But on the other hand, we see St. Thomas Aquinas commended specifically for his Eucharistic writings, St. Benedict as the founder of “one of the great Religious Orders,” and an intricately decorated Annunciation. It is thus also a Catholic book. Mrs. Chadwick, like Travers before her, manages to gracefully blend the two traditions in a way that would not have been possible one hundred years earlier. Her gentle work represents a single sensibility: confident, late-stage Anglo-Catholicism.

Enid Chadwick March 1Enid Chadwick March 2

 

As with Comper and Travers, Mrs. Chadwick roots her work in a loving contemplation of the human face of God. Thus, all of her art is figurative. Unlike Comper and Travers, she never crossed the border from draughtsmanship to the world of three-dimensional liturgical design. One does wonder what the world may have gained if she had designed an altar or two. Alas. She was happy, instead, to deploy her considerable talent to an articulate, delightful, and evangelically potent form of illustration. What’s more, her art is not just an achievement in itself. It served a purpose: to instruct and edify. The popularity that these images enjoy today suggest that they still retain the power they once had. Her many books, now all out of print, will some day be returned to press or left to the public domain. That will be a very great day for the Church indeed.

In the meantime, I hope we can bring back some of her tasteful and theologically sound Christmas cards.

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A collage of Enid Chadwick’s Christmas cards, all taken from here.

One notable figure in all of these cards is Our Lady. The Madonna is the central figure of Mrs. Chadwick’s art. She lived in Walsingham most of her life, and dedicated much of her talent to propagating devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. She even illustrated the second edition of Fr. Hope Patten’s book about the shrine.

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One of Chadwick’s illustrations for the Anglican Shrine of O.L. of Walsingham. (Source)

Enid Chadwick’s work represents the final chapter of Anglo-Catholicism as an aesthetically creative movement. The latter half of her career coincided with the Second Vatican Council. One unintended consequence of the Council was that, in addition to the degradation of taste that spread through the Roman Church, the same infection spilled over to the Anglican Communion. The ghastly ecclesiastical embroidery of Beryl Dean is proof enough of the collapse in liturgical arts. So, too, are the tacky materials worn by the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury on multiple occasions. His iconic miter-and-cope set would look better in an episode of Doctor Who than at the stately cloisters of Westminster.

Yet I am not qualified to assess how far the rot has set into the C of E. At the very least, the National Trust has done tremendous work in preserving and restoring many of the churches that made up the fabric of the Anglican heritage. I know from personal experience that there are pockets of tremendous taste and devotion still left in the Anglo-Catholic world. However, I can also say that the Roman Church is still reeling in many places from the obnoxious stylistic choices of the postconciliar generation. My hope is that this essay might contribute, in some small way, to a greater appreciation of the Anglican Patrimony and what it might teach us.

A few clear lessons emerge. First, we have to get over our toxic allergy to all things Gothic (or Baroque, or Romanesque, or Byzantine, etc.). We needn’t go as far as Pugin in declaring one style to be definitively “Christian” to the exclusion of the rest, but we ought to embrace our own history. We shouldn’t fear extravagance in liturgical design as long as it’s well-executed, glorifies God, and directs the soul to worship the Eucharistic Lord. Yet we can also balance that tendency with a complementary emphasis on holy simplicity. Let us always recall that a Catholic imagination is only properly formed across several types of artistic encounter. We should foster and seek sound Catholic illustration as much as sound Catholic architecture or sound Catholic liturgical design. Finally, we shouldn’t fear radiance and color and the human face. Only then might we one day repeat the triumph of color that nearly converted a nation.

Elsewhere: Michael Martin on Heresy

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Haublin’s portrait of Jacob Boehme. (Source)

I have just finished a rather interesting piece by Michael Martin, perhaps the leading Catholic sophiologist, on the subject of heresy. Martin argues that we even ostensible heretics have something to offer orthodox Christians. It helps that he grounds his points more in lived experience than any kind of normative Christian discourse. I quote at length:

But cries of “Heresy!” are in no way confined to those usually identified as adherents of a religious conservatism. My own work in sophiology, for instance, moves into territory some might consider dangerously heretical, but the most vicious attacks on me and my work—-calling both me and it “satanic”—-have come not from those of a manualist persuasion, but from those more aligned with a social justice approach to religious questions (although the manualists and Neo-Thomists have not been my most sympathetic readers, at least they haven’t suspected that I was possessed!).

For my part, I doubt I’d have any faith at all were it not for heresy. As a former Waldorf teacher and a practicing biodynamic farmer, I don’t know who I’d be without encountering the work of Rudolf Steiner (a guy who will set off the “heretic alarm” in just about any religious tradition) who taught me, among other things, about the centrality of Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice for not only human beings but for the cosmos at a time when I was wandering in the desert of postmodernity and consumer culture. Likewise, had I not stumbled across Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ (based on the novel by Niko Kazantzakis) and Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal in my late twenties, I doubt I would have returned to the Catholic Church. Likewise, my engagement with the work of Jacob Boehme opened for me a way into religious understanding paralleled in some degree by the radical way Martin Heidegger redefined philosophy for me. There are many other heretics to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, but these will suffice.

I differ with Martin on some important points. I am much more sanguine towards the Dubia and the Correctio than he is (I see them as necessary for the preservation of orthopraxis as well as a helpful move away from ultramontane ecclesiology; both movements vindicate Cardinal Newman). Likewise, when Martin writes later that…

It may be that these so-called heretics possess something many allegedly “faithful” Christians don’t: a sincere approach to the figure of Jesus, unencumbered by obligations to dogma. Because of such sincerity, Jesus is able to bleed through obscurity and fable.

…he may be putting just a bit too fine a point on it. Dogma matters. One could cite any number of perfectly respectable theologians who write of how desperately we need dogma (once again, I think of Newman in the Apologia), but I’d rather not belabor the matter. The problem lies not with dogma, but with dogmatism, a tendency to regard far more as settled than actually is. Moreover, Martin makes much of the fact that he has “learned much about Jesus from heretics.”

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Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), the Magus of the North. A Lutheran whose idiosyncrasies could certainly earn him the label of heretic. (Source)

Here, I am in a somewhat qualified agreement with Martin. First, because I, too, have been deeply influenced by figures whom some would consider heretical, from George Herbert to Johann Georg Hamann to Jacob Boehme to Ernst Fuchs to William Blake. I came to the faith in part because my imagination was prepared by that deeply heretical musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. One of my closest mentors in college was an Armenian Orthodox theologian and ethicist —technically, a miaphysite. I have something approaching a devotion to Charles I, King and Martyr, even though he was not reconciled to Rome at the time of his death. Thomists at least would frown upon my fondness for St. Gregory Palamas and his mystical theology. A number of Jewish authors have helped me find my theological bearings—particularly Halevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Maimonides, and the authors of the Zohar. Various authors of the Frankfurt School made a tremendous impact on me in college. Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” still resonate deeply with me, and force me to reckon with the complications of my own tradition. If you want to be really strict about what constitutes heresy, even someone as ostensibly Marian and Ecclesial as T.S. Eliot, a poet who has shaped my thought in more ways than I know, would nevertheless be heretical for his high Anglicanism as well as his unsound views on birth control. And need I mention that far more egregious heretic, Herman Melville? Moby Dick was like a revelation for me when I first read it last year.

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Origen of Alexandria. Church Father and something of a heretic. (Source)

There are more thinkers I could cite who are problematic in the face of formal orthodoxy. The Catechism tells us,

Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” CCC 2089

I would wager that most if not all of the authors I mentioned could be charged with at least one of these sins. So what? I don’t regret the wisdom they have shared with me. To the contrary, I am a better person for my contact with their lives and works.

The fact is, most of us are probably indebted to heretics of some kind in some way or other. We arrive at this state, not through any deliberate, insidious intent, but merely by a thorough education. And what is education if not learning how to find diamonds amidst coal? A well-read man will inevitably encounter writers whose view of the world is imperfect (as his own is). But that encounter can be very beneficial if wedded to discretion and wisdom. Surely this maxim is just as true for the theologian as for any other scholar. The perfection of his discipline consists not in the purity of his intellectual lineage, but in attaining the vision of God. At a certain point, systemic rigor breaks down in the face of the absolute and ineffable mystery.

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The Philosophers, Mikhail Nesterov, 1917. Here we see both Fr. Pavel Florensky and (soon to be) Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov, two of the great Russian Sophiologists. While technically condemned as heretics by the Soviet Patriarch, their profound insights into the mysteries of Divine Wisdom remain seminal in contemporary Orthodox and Catholic theology. And that’s a good thing. (Source)

Let me add a brief theological note. Like Martin, I think sophiology is a terribly important idea. The sophiology of Bulgakov et al. was (sort of) condemned by a (compromised) Moscow Patriarchate in 1935. The Orthodox remain deeply divided over its actual status as a heresy. Nevertheless, its intellectual legacy lingers in both East and West, and it is still proving to be a fertile source of theological discussion. I pray that it will continue to develop in the 21st century.

Thirdly, as an historian, I have to admit that Martin’s conclusion isn’t all that unusual. Scholars have increasingly recognized since the 1930’s that, as a matter of historical fact, the boundaries between heresy and orthodoxy have been notably porous over the centuries. The case of Origen alone would suffice to illustrate the issue, though more could be cited. What may seem perfectly orthodox in one era could turn out to be declared heretical as doctrine develops and clarifies over the course of the ages. Or quite the opposite; we lay faithful can now receive the Blessed Sacrament in both kinds. Previously, Utraquism was condemned along with all the rest of Jan Hus’s errors (though personally, I dislike this liturgical practice and rarely receive in both kinds myself).

There are practical concerns at play, too. Theologians must retain a certain level of intellectual freedom if any kind of development is to happen at all. How are we to approach that freedom? How to canalize the vast and manifold energies of the spirit, so often diffused in an erratic array of chattering and solipsistic spurts of “dialogue” online? The free “Republic of Letters” spoken of by the Humanists and their early modern descendants is, I think, a much better model for our own theological era than the mechanistic logic and endless citation of authorities seen among the classical Scholastics. I’ll add that the increasingly important field of visual theology poses other important questions. The encryption and interpretation of meaning through art, emblems, ritual, and other aesthetic media opens itself to all manner of views. Some are orthodox, others heterodox. This very heterogeneity requires a certain degree of freedom for discussion and discernment. There is an irony in Martin’s rejection of the Dubia and the Correctio. Both documents rely upon and exemplify the very academic freedom that his piece latently extols.

Don’t get me wrong. Heresy is and always has been a sin, and a mortal one at that. We should oppose it; the proper authorities should correct it through the proper channels, and in the case of open and public heresy, the laity can and should do so as well. But Martin is right to note that the individual ideas of heretics can be fruitful for deepening properly orthodox meditations. More importantly, God can make whatever use of them He wishes. I doubt that Martin is or will be the only one who has “learned much about Jesus” from those deemed heretics.

Elsewhere: A New Anglo-Catholic Blog

Ordination 1956 by Norman Blamey 1914-2000

“Ordination,” by Norman Blamey, 1956. (Source)

My friend, Archbishop Mark Haverland, Primate of the Anglican Catholic Church, has just started a new blog called “Anglican Catholic Liturgy and Theology.” You really get what it says on the tin with this one. For those of us with an interest in Anglo-Catholic history, theology, and practice, Archbishop Haverland’s blog will no doubt prove to be a great resource.

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,

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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).

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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?

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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).

Our Lady of the Cenacle in Armenian Iconography

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Figure A. Our Lady of the Cenacle, pray for us. From the source: “MINIATURES – Erevan, Matenadaran, MS 8772, Gospel, Aght’amar, Vaspurakan, 1391, artist Dzerun, Pentecost. Photo: Dickran Kouymjian.” (Source)

Throughout the Latin Church, Saturday in the Ascension Octave is kept as the Feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle. On this holy day, we remember the Mother of God keeping vigil with the Apostles in the Upper Room, or “Cenacle.” The place is significant. Here, Christ gathered the Twelve on the night of his betrayal, Maundy Thursday. At that time, He instituted the priesthood and the Eucharist. Later, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will descend upon the congregation and truly constitute the Church as such, confirming its sacramental essence and mission in the world of time.

Mary’s position in this unique place at this unique time is captured in the title, “Our Lady of the Cenacle.” But that name conceals a much deeper mystery. What, precisely, was she doing in the Cenacle? Why was she there? And does her presence, never mentioned in the Bible, nevertheless retain important meaning for us today?

As with any mystery unspoken in Scripture but passed on to us by the Tradition, we can approach it by many paths. One of the wonderful things about the Church is that, in her sacramentality, she recasts everything in the light of Christ and opens all things to a deeper meaning than we ordinarily encounter. So today, I’d like to consider Our Lady of the Cenacle through art. Specifically, iconography. Even more specifically, Armenian illuminated manuscripts.

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Figure B. A Greek-style Russian icon of 1497. Note the emptimess of the “Teacher’s Seat” at center. (Source)

In the Greek iconographic tradition, Pentecost is usually depicted with an empty seat in the center…the place of Christ the King and Teacher, who has ascended and sent the Holy Spirit in his stead. The icon for the feast of mid-Pentecost dovetails with this custom, as it depicts Jesus the youth instructing the teachers of the Law in an arrangement that approximates that of Pentecost proper. The Russian and Slavic iconographic tradition largely copies this model, with one notable exception. Many Russian iconographers include the Mother of God in what would ordinarily be the empty “Teacher’s Seat.” As one writer puts it, “Mary is therefore shown in the ‘teacher’s seat’ as the best example we have, and the person on earth who most resembled Jesus Christ (both physically, as His mother, and spiritually as His disciple).” Indeed.

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Figure C. A Russian-style icon with the Mother of God in the “Teacher’s Seat,” date unknown. (Source).

The Armenian iconographic tradition differs from both the Greek and Russian streams in important ways, not all of which we can get into here. For our purposes, it is enough for us to observe that the Armenians have a tendency to place the Mother of God at the center of the Pentecostal scene.

Examine, if you will, the illumination at the top of this essayFigure A.

Mary is, by far, the largest character. The Apostles crowd around her on both sides expectantly. Her hands are lifted in the orans position of prayer. She stands in a red mantle and a dark blue robe that matches the hue of the Holy Spirit alighting above her. Every one of the bird’s tongues of flame move through her nimbus to reach the Apostles, some of whom even raise their own hands as if to reach out and take hold of the mystical fire.

A similar placement and posture is written into the following icon:

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Figure D. Description from source: “This Armenian Gospel book was produced in 904 of the Armenian era (1455 CE) at the monastery of Gamałiēl in Xizan by the scribe Yohannēs Vardapet, son of Vardan and Dilšat, and was illuminated by the priest Xačʿatur.” (Source)

Mary is the central pillar of the icon. The Holy Spirit does not just descend, but rests upon her as He sends forth his tongues of flame. Here, too, their colors match. We can see that the Holy Spirit is customarily written in blue for this festal icon.

Blue is an interesting color, one with mystical associations. I won’t attempt a full symbolic analysis here, but it is worth contemplating the range of natural and supernatural meanings which Christianity has invested in this delicate shade. It suffices to say that blue is a sophianic color, calling to mind the wisdom and beauty of God (see the pertinent chapter in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, by the great Russian theologian Father Pavel Florensky). The iconographic tradition is of great help in this subject as well; besides gold, blue is the only other color allowed for the background of icons in the Greek and Slavic canons.

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Figure E. An Armenian Pentecost icon without Mary, but with a blue dove of the Spirit. (Source)

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Figure F. Pentecost icon of unconfirmed but probably Armenian origin. Same blue Spirit, roughly the same placement of the Theotokos. (Source).

It is also perhaps worthy of note that in Figure D, Mary doesn’t just match the hue of the Spirit. The colors she wears also match the architecture of the Cenacle. She is one with the Cenacle; the Cenacle is hers, and hers alone. The Cenacle is the Church, the Cenacle is every tabernacle in the world, the Cenacle is Heaven, the Cenacle is the New Jerusalem, the Cenacle is the Throne of God, the Cenacle is the Eschaton, the Cenacle is the final consummation of sophianic being brought about by Christ’s gloriously triumphant Incarnation, sacrifice, and Resurrection.

And in all these mystical dimensions of the Cenacle, Our Lady is Queen.

Mary is the woman who bears the Holy Spirit, the living icon of the Church. When we look at Mary, we are to think of the Spirit. The Mother of God always points us to her son, but also to the Holy Spirit, and through both, to the Father. She is never apart from the Holy Spirit. They abide together, and the Cenacle is where her truly Eucharistic and sophianic state of being is manifested for the awe-struck view of the whole Church. She is the consummation of what is accomplished by the Trinity in the Cenacle, the woman who fully cooperates in the salvation of the world, the Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of All Graces. Indeed, do we not read the latter title in the first illumination above? Do we not see it in the slim orange lines of fire that move through her halo to the Apostles below? They only receive the Spirit as it passes through Mary.

Mary does nothing of her own effort. God does all in her, and she freely agrees to accept and work for God’s will. St. Paul can speak of “those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh” (Col. 1:24 DRA). Not so with Mary. In her, the cross’s victory is complete. In her, it has become the Tree of Life, “so that the birds of the air,” such as the blue bird of the icons, “come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matt. 13:32 KJV).

On this feast day, let us remember the manifold graces that Our Lady showers upon us from her throne in the eternal Cenacle. Let us also take heart that, with so powerful an advocate at the heart of the Church, no controversies or troubles can ever overwhelm the Barque of Peter. Finally, let us pray to Our Lady of the Cenacle for the Benedictines of Silverstream on this, their patronal feast.

In Defense of the “Twice-Blessed Asparagus”

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There’s a punchline here somewhere. Source.

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

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

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

This really did happen in real life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Point 1 stands. The photo above speaks for itself.

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

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

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

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

Some Occasional Thoughts on the Holy Minimalists and the Light of Tabor

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Icon of the Transfiguration, by the hand of the great 15th century iconographer of Moscow, Theophanes the Greek.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them,”Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

These words from St. Matthew were the Gospel reading at Mass last night. Yesterday was the second weekend of Lent, and the Church directs our eyes, alongside those of the holy apostles, to the face of Our Lord in His Transfiguration. And in the Eastern Churches, today is St. Gregory Palamas Sunday. Palamas is most famous for his articulation of the Essence-Energies distinction as part of a broader polemic against the Byzantine Scholastic attacks on Hesychasm carried out by Barlaam of Seminara. One of Palamas’ key Scriptural examples of God’s energies is the “uncreated light” of Christ’s glory in the Transfiguration. St. Gregory is celebrated to this day by the Eastern Orthodox and by Eastern Catholics on their Lenten calendars; yet in the post-Scholastic West, he still holds no place on the calendar. I must wonder whether or not the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent were chosen at the revision of the Lectionary in part as an ecumenical gesture to the Orthodox, though my knowledge of 20th century liturgical innovations is shallow at best. Regardless, those who, to adapt a phrase of Pope St. John Paul II, “breathe with both lungs” of the Church can recognize the Providential coincidence of these two celebrations.

The Light of Tabor is, in a Palamite reading, the eternal Glory of God made manifest in, with, and through Christ’s created humanity. The Transfiguration is therefore an archetypal moment for every mysticnot just the Hesychasts whom St. Gregory was defending. In view of all this, while I listened to the priest reading the Gospel this evening, a song came to mind: “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” by Arvo Pärt. The lyrics are taken from a poem by Robert Burns. Here’s the chorus:

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

A few weeks ago, when I first listened to the song, it immediately struck me as a potent metaphor for the contemplative life. Is not the contemplative’s heart set in the “high lands” of the spirit, like St. John of the Cross’s Mount Carmel? And has the Divine not been associated with wild deer throughout history, from the panting hart of Psalm 42 to the vision of St. Hubert to the White Stag of Narnia? The Apostles, like the mystics, like the chanting voice in Pärt’s song, are “led…up a high mountain by themselves.” There, they find Christ’s true glory, the energy of His divinity totally interpenetrating all they can perceive of him. The created rises into the divine, and the uncreated bends towards the creaturely; the two meet in the transfigured Christ. The dual presence of the heavenly Elijah and the Sheol-bound Moses demonstrates the moment of radiant communion between God and His creation, manifested perfectly in Christ, the Word made flesh.

Pärt’s song describes the experience of the mystic, not because Burns’ words actually refer to contemplation, but because of the way he takes up the verse and stretches it against an agonizingly poignant organ composition. He sets secular words to sacred music. Thus he accomplishes in miniature the assumption of the creaturely by the divine that comes before our vision in the Transfiguration. Art at its finest is called to participate in this lesser Transfiguration, and Pärt is a consummate master of what Tolkien might call “sub-creation.”

But Pärt is not alone in this; one of his colleagues, John Tavener, arguably a finer and more mystically-oriented composer, also transfigured profane writings into sacred pieces of music. I can think of no better example of this than his brief and delightful motet, “The Lamb.” Tavener took the lyrics from William Blake’s poem of the same name. In full, it reads:

Little lamb, who made thee
 Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
 Little lamb, who made thee?
 Dost thou know who made thee?

 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is callèd by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are callèd by His name.
 Little lamb, God bless thee!
 Little lamb, God bless thee!

Here too, we might glimpse the transfigured Lamb of God between the lines of Blake’s verse. The lamb’s “clothing of delight/Softest clothing, woolly, bright” seems to echo the robe rendered “white as light” on Mt. Tabor. Blake speaks of “the vales” when Scripture instead would bring us up to the peaks. And the question that ends the first verse is fundamentally the same as that which must have run through the minds of the bewildered apostles; who is this man? The answer, of course, comes from the voice in the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And Tavener’s eerily beautiful choral setting imbues the lyrics with a dimension hitherto unimagined. Many of his works remind one of candlelight on ritual gold, or the smell of incense flying forth with the rhythm of thurible bells, or the echo that thins out asymptotically under the glittering mosaic of a high dome. “The Lamb” is all of this, presented compactly. It stands as one of his finest works, and one of his most spiritually rich.

I recently wrote about the Holy Minimalists in a piece on the music of The Young Pope. They’ve been on my mind. But I didn’t connect their artistic project to the Transfiguration until tonight. We Christians are to become “little Christs,” imitating Jesus in all things by adoption and deification. Sometimes, that takes the form of contemplation. The apostles model that path for us in their behavior on Mt. Tabor. But at other times, and in other ways, we are called to live the life of Christ more directly. The Transfiguration provides a mystical glimpse of what happensand indeed, what will happenwhen the uncreated Light of God assumes, permeates, and glorifies the creation. Of course, the energies of God are not found in the artifices of men; but artists can practice their own, creaturely form of transfiguration. The pieces of music I have discussed are shot through with an awareness of the divine presence, and the words that began as profane poetry become something altogether different, something sacred, something nearly liturgical.

At the beginning of Lent, T.S. Eliot tells us to “Redeem/The time.” On this, the Second Sunday of the penitential season, Christ reveals in Himself how we might do soa transfiguration that Arvo Pärt and John Tavener have achieved, in some small way, through their own creative work.