I must refer my readers to a new recording of some Gregorian chant from Silverstream Priory. The beautiful responsory, Media Vita, is very timely during this pandemic. Here is the translation, passed on by the Prior:
In the midst of life we are in death; from whom shall we seek help, save Thee, O Lord? Who for our sins art justly angered. * Holy God, Holy mighty One, Holy merciful Saviour, hand us not over to the bitterness of death.
1. In Thee our fathers hoped; they hoped, and Thou hast liberated them. * Holy God, Holy mighty One, Holy merciful Saviour, hand us not over to the bitterness of death.
2. To Thee our fathers cried; they cried and were not confounded. * Holy God, Holy mighty One, Holy merciful Saviour, hand us not over to the bitterness of death.
3. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. * Holy God, Holy mighty One, Holy merciful Saviour, hand us not over to the bitterness of death.
Translation of the Media Vita
I know I speak for the monks when I encourage you to give it a listen and take some comfort from this ancient prayer of the Church in a time when death is all around.
I would particularly note the highly idiosyncratic harmonic arrangement used here. I have not heard any other renditions of this chant like it. I grew up listening to the Benedictines of Santo Domingo do Silos, and although I like their hauntingly pure Media Vita, the Silverstream version has a complexity and depth that feels very different, if just as moving.
The accompanying film is also of very high quality. I have known the monks of Silverstream for six years. This is by far the best video I’ve seen from them. It does a good job capturing the peculiar beauty of that monastery in Springtime, as well as the powerful sense of holiness that radiates throughout the house and grounds from the Blessed Sacrament. And for those who care about such things, there’s a lovely conical requiem chasuble from 3:23 on.
Give it a listen, and please consider supporting the monks through a donation or by shopping at their excellent online store. The monks are streaming their masses and some of their offices throughout this crisis, and I recommend following them for what will no doubt be a stirring and holy Paschal Triduum (albeit at a distance).
What follows is an original translation of L’Horloge de la Passion, a brief meditative text written by the Solitaire of Port-Royal, Jean Hamon (1618-1687), a doctor of medicine, mystic, and exegete. Hamon wrote L’Horloge for the sisters of Port-Royal to use during perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, perhaps during the Triduum. Perpetual adoration was a central feature of life at Port-Royal from 1647, when Mère Angélique returned from the unsuccessful venture of the Institut du Saint-Sacrement.
Each hour represents a different mystery of the Passion and is calibrated to follow the Passion narrative in real time. Hamon concludes with several prayers, probably composed first in Latin and then put into the vernacular. I have take the liberty of reproducing the Latin below while translating from the accompanying French.
This document, though originating from the heyday of Port-Royal, was only published in 1739 in the post-Unigenitus ferment of Jansenist print culture. It remains a very edifying text and a testament of the vitality of the spiritual life that characterized those wayward ascetics clustered around Port-Royal. I offer it here both out of historical interest for those who, like me, look at Port-Royal for academic reasons, and because I felt that such a text may be of some use and consolation to the faithful in this very unusual Holy Week, when death hedges us all around.
L’Horloge de la Passion
At six o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ washes the feet of His Apostles. Humility. Help to our neighbor.
At seven o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ institutes the Most Blessed Sacrament. Recognition and perpetual memory of this benefit.
At eight o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ prays to His Father for the salvation and union of His Elect. To renounce everything that can stops us from being one with Jesus Christ and our brethren.
At nine o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ is sad even unto death. Confidence in the weakness of Jesus Christ, who is our strength in our dejection and our miseries.
At ten o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ prays to His Father to take away the chalice of His sufferings. Submission to the will of God.
At eleven o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ enters into agony. To resist sin with courage.
At midnight: Jesus Christ, after having turned back the Jews by a single word, allows himself to be caught. To see God in all that man cause us to suffer.
At one o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ allows himself to be carried off by the Jews. Sweetness and humility in ill-treatment.
At two o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is presented to the High Priest. To revere God in secular and ecclesiastical authorities.
At three o’clock in the morning: Renunciation and penance of St. Peter. Fidelity in confessing the name of Jesus Christ. Humble return to Him after our falls.
At four o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is presented before the Council of the Jews. To listen to the word of God as being truly His word. To adorer the Truth, never to raise ourselves against it.
At five o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ mocked and outraged by the servants of the Priests. To suffer humbly both scorn and injuries.
At six o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is brought before Pilate. Adoration and imitation of the silence of Jesus Christ, when we are accused.
At seven o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is sent to Herod. To pass as foolish before men even though we be truly wise.
At eight o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is scourged. To take part in the sufferings of Jesus Christ and His members.
At nine o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is crowned with thorns. To adore Jesus Christ as our King. To suffer with him, is to reign.
At ten o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is condemned to death. To die to one’s self is to live in Jesus.
At eleven o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ carries His Cross. Let us carry ours after him; he carries it with us.
At noon: Jesus Christ is crucified. To attach ourselves to Jesus Chris, and to desire to be attached by Him to the Cross.
At one o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ is lifted up upon the Cross. To raise our eyes and heart towards the mysterious and divine Serpent.
At two o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ speaks to His Father, to the Blessed Virgin Mary His Mother, and to St. Jean. Attention to these divine words that comprehend our duties.
At three o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ gives up the ghost. To adore His death; to unite ours to him.
At four o’clock in the afternoon: The open side of Jesus Christ sheds blood and water. Rest in the Side and in the Wounds of Jesus Christ. To honor the Sacraments established in the Church.
At five o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ is buried, and placed in the tomb. To be buried with Him. To hope for the Resurrection.
Prayers – That one can say in adoring the Death of Jesus Christ
Ut beatam horam Mortis tuae adoramus, Domine, da nobis ut horam mortis nostrae, quam solus nosti, perfecto corde & vivendo & moriendo adoremus.
Vouchsafe unto us grace, O Lord, that in adoring the hour of Thy Death, we might adore, in living and dying with a heart perfectly submitted to Thine commands, the hour of our death, that is known to none but thee.
Domine Jesu, qui mori voluisti ne moreremur, sed de morte ad vitam transiremus, recordare Mortis tuae in tempore mortis meae, cum nec tui nec mei recordari potuero.
Lord Jesus, who hast desired to die to deliver us from death, and to cause us to pass from death to life, remember Thou Thy Death at the hour of mine, when I will be no longer in a state to think of either myself or Thee.
Mortem meam quae poena peccati est, tutetur & protegat Mors tua, quae tollit peccata mundi, ut jam pie cogitando quia mortuus es, tunc moriendo non moriar.
May Thy Death that nullifies the sins of the world be my protection in death, which shall be the penalty of sin; and in thinking with piety that Thou art dead, in dying even may I not die.
Versetur semper ante oculos meos tempus Mortis tuae, quae mihi sit fons vitae, cum vita mea defecerit, ut in Morte tua vitam invenire possim qui in vita mea mortem singulis diebus invenio.
May Thy Death always be present to me, so that it may be unto me a source of immortal life when I will lose this corruptible life; and instead of often finding death in my life, may I find life in Thy Death.
Fac, Domine, semper conjungam cogitationem Mortis tuae cogitationi mortis meae, ut quod in morte mea amarum esse potest, benedictione Mortis tuae dulcescat; sicque vitae permanentis amore, mortis transeuntis levem ictum non reformidem.
Vouchsafe unto me the grace, O Lord, of ever uniting myself to the thought of Thy Death in the remembrance of mine, so that what there might be of bitterness in my death might be sweetened by the blessing of Thine; and thus that the love of an eternal life might cause me not to dread anything of the blow, so light, of a voyaging death.
Bene vivam, Domine, ut bene moriar. Ut bene vivam, vivam de te. Ut bene moriar, moriar in te,. Vitam meam informet Vita tua, ut sancta sit; & mortem meam defendat Mors tua, salus nostra, ut sit salutaris,
Vouchsafe unto me the grace, O Lord, of living well, that I may die well. May I live in Thee, that I might live well: and to die well, may I die in Thee. May Thy life be the rule of my life, so that it may be holy; and may Thy Death, which is the cause of our salvation, safeguard my death so that it may procure unto me salvation.
One of the more shocking ecclesiastical news stories of 2019 was a survey from the Pew Research Center showing that only 28% of American Catholics know and believe the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist. The numbers look a little less grim when one breaks down the data by Mass attendance. 63% of weekly Mass-goers know and believe in the Real Presence. Yet that leaves a whopping 37% of weekly Mass attendees who do not believe in the Real Presence; the numbers are much higher for Catholics who don’t go to Mass as frequently. 75% of those who go to Mass monthly or yearly believe the bread and wine are only “symbols” of Jesus’s Body and Blood, while the number rises to 87% of Catholics who go to Mass even more rarely.
In view of this alarming data, I think we can safely say that one benefit of the present shut-down of public masses is that there will be far fewer sacrilegious communions. Possibly none, if the priests who offer private masses are doing so in a state of grace. I can only think that, in a time of international tumult, this fact, at least, is a good thing. Worthy communion is more important than frequent communion. Yet our ecclesiastical culture has, over the decades, become so fixated on frequent communion and liturgical participation as to neglect the all-important question of preparation for communion. The whole mystagogical apparatus of the early Church is against this attitude, as was the lived practice of most Christians throughout a great portion of Church history. Even St. Philip Neri, who devoutly encouraged frequent communion when this practice was rare, nevertheless made his spiritual sons at the Oratory confess to him every single day.
We have sadly now come to a point where many believe they are entitled to receive the Blessed Sacrament, simply by virtue of showing up to Mass. But this mentality vitiates our recognition of its quality as a work of supernatural grace – of something gratuitous, freely given to us by God without respect to our own merits. For what is the grace of the Blessed Sacrament, but the very life of Our Lord, Jesus Christ? It is the epitome of grace, for in the Blessed Sacrament we encounter the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Priestly Intercession of the Lord. This is why we must make a good preparation for reception of Holy Communion: in a worthy communion, that infinite Life merges with our own, and gradually assimilates us to Itself. Thus we discover the profoundly Eucharistic sense of the Apostle’s words, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
We should all take this time when we are unable to avail ourselves of the Blessed Sacrament to consider how frequently and in how many ways we outrage the Sacred and Eucharistic Heart of Jesus through sacrilegious communions, doubt in the Real Presence, and other manifold sins. This is a time for Acts of Contrition and Reparation. We must turn to God in a spirit of penance. To do so would be to transform this unhappy situation into an occasion of grace for ourselves, our neighbors, our Church, and the whole world.
The Eucharist is essential to the supernatural life, as are the sacraments more generally. Nevertheless, one worthy communion is so infinitely full of grace that we could (in theory) go a lifetime without receiving again and still gain heaven. This may seem unlikely; most souls do indeed need to receive more often than that.
But let us consider the case of St. Mary of Egypt, a saint who is venerated in a special way during the penitential season of Lent among the Eastern churches. Having lived a sinful life as a prostitute, Mary decided to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a kind of tourist. Yet when she attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to behold the True Cross, she was repeatedly held back by an invisible force. Distraught, she beheld an icon of the Mother of God. In a moment of grace, she repented of her sins with tears and trembling. The invisible barrier lifted. She was able to enter the church. The graces of that pilgrimage inspired her to go into the desert around Jordan, where she spent forty-seven years alone as a hermit. In that time, she overcame the Passions and received marvelous gifts, including an infused knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Her ascetic labor has enshrined her as one of the most powerful and beloved of the Desert Saints. Eventually, the hieromonk St. Zosima met her and heard her story, which is how it has come down to us through the ages.
Here’s the thing: in her long life, St. Mary is known to have received the Blessed Sacrament only twice. Once, when she stopped at the Church of St. John the Baptist on the Jordan River as she was just beginning her ascesis. Then again shortly before her death. As she tells Zosima in her Vita,
“Remain, Abba, in the monastery. And even if you wish to depart, you will not be to do so. And at sunset of the holy day of the Last Supper, put some of the lifegiving Body and Blood of Christ into a holy vessel worthy to hold such Mysteries for me, and bring it. And wait for me on the banks of the Jordan adjoining the inhabited parts of the land, so that I can come and partake of the lifegiving Gifts. For, since the time I communicated in the temple of the Forerunner before crossing the Jordan even to this day I have not approached the Holy Mysteries. And I thirst for them with irrepressible love and longing. and therefore I ask and implore you to grant me my wish, bring me the lifegiving Mysteries at the very hour when Our Lord made His disciples partake of His Divine Supper.”
The Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt, St. Sophronius of Jerusalem Source.
I am quite certain that St. Mary was sustained throughout her forty-seven years in the desert by the grace of that one worthy communion. Happy are we, who are not so deprived! We can make spiritual communions, we can adore the Blessed Sacrament mentally, we can stream Mass, we can pray the Divine Office, and so much more. I genuinely believe that this time away from the Sacrament, if we dispose of it well, can remind us of the proper disposition we must bring to the altar – and which we so often lack! A keener appreciation and deeper faith in the great mystery of Holy Communion would be a salutary fruit of this crisis, and a great grace for the people of God. So, too, would a more robust and multifarious approach to Eucharistic devotion.
Let us remember that God does not abandon us. We may not be able to receive Him, but He still abides in the tabernacles of His Church. He has given us this crisis as an opportunity to purify our hearts and to restore our faith in Him. He is ever near us. He is ever willing to help us. He will not forget us or turn away from us. Let us follow that great archetype of the Christian life, St. Mary of Egypt, and return to Our Eucharist Lord only after doing proper penance for our sins during our stay in the desert. And in the meantime, let us cleave to Him as to the only rock of safety in a violent storm.
O Eucharistic Jesus, grant us the grace of loving Thee more perfectly while we must be far from Thee. Help us to cultivate a spirit of true contrition for our many sins against Thee, and grant us the grace of making worthy reparation. By the invincible, infinite, and everlasting merits of Thy Precious Blood, do Thou conquer everything base, everything impure, and everything sinful within us. And do Thou cleanse us, body, soul, and spirit, that we may enter into Thy sanctuary at the end of our days. Amen.
The great reforming Abbess of Port-Royal, Mère Angélique Arnauld (1591-1661), is chiefly remembered today for her memorable role in the early phases of the Jansenist controversy. This is somewhat unfortunate, as the reform at Port-Royal was considerable and widely admired by such eminent figures as SS Francis de Sales and Jeanne-Françoise de Chantal. Leaving aside any historical question of Mère Angélique‘s actions in the Jansenist affair, I put forth my own translation of what is, I believe, a salutary text published long after her death. I would add that a Catholic may believe that the five propositions are heretical while also believing the nuns of Port-Royal were very badly treated by the authorities of church and state. The text is excerpted from Entretiens ou conferences de la reverende mère Marie-Angelique Arnauld (1767), pg. 331-34.
To have a part in the inheritance of Jesus Christ, one must suffer with Him: and what suffering did He endure? He suffered pains in his body: He suffered in His goods, because He desired to be born poor, and to endure the inconveniences of poverty: in His honor, for all the world knows in what fashion He was treated. Thus, if we desire to enjoy glory with Him, it is necessary to suffer with Him and like Him. I say to you in truth, my Sisters, that whosoever does not embrace mortification, he piles up affliction on affliction, not only for the life eternal, but also for the present…
The greatest need that we have is to adore God, and the greatest fault that we commit is not to do so. If therefore we beg of God the grace to adore Him, we remedy our greatest need, and in adoring Him, we repair our greatest faults. I wish that we would be so truly in this spirit of adoration, that we would have no other thoughts than to offer all creatures and ourselves in continual sacrifice to God. This would be a holocaust that would be more agreeable than all the prayers that we know how to say. Believe me: this would be the true way to obtain all the graces that are necessary for us. It is properly that which Our Lord said unto St. Catherine of Sienna: Think of me, and I shall think of thee. Consider, I pray you, the Blessed Virgin: she knew God from the moment of her conception, and from that moment she never ceased adoring Him…She followed Him with simplicity in time: she allowed herself to marry with the same simplicity; she received the quality of Mother of God in a profound adoration of His divine grandeur: her whole life was nothing but a perfect dependence on God. At the wedding at Cana, she contents herself with representing to her Son the necessity that she sees; and after having understood His response, she says to the servants: Do whatever he tells you; as if she had desired to say: I do not know what He wants to do, but obey that which He commands of you; if he says nothing unto you, do nothing…
It seems to me that it suffices to know that God is our Father, and after that what anxieties can we have in this life? When one has a Father at once wise, rich, good, and powerful, one fears nothing: but if he comes to die, we pity these poor orphans, fearing lest a tutor dissipate all their goods; but this is what cannot happen with God. So I do not understand how it can happen that one has so much mistrust of the mercy and the providence of God; do we therefore lack faith? Many times I find myself in rather disagreeable affairs, and He has always granted me the grace of handing over the event to His divine providence. One time in particular I found myself in a situation that was entirely difficult, and that was of no small importance; it put me in a great anguish, because I could see no daylight there. A good person wrote to me that when we do not see any remedy for things according to human prudence, God knows that we don’t know. This calmed me very much, so that all my anxieties ceased, and I have always believed so firmly in the providence of God, that nothing could shake me, because I know that He guides everything.
On this feast of St. Anthony the Abbot, I am reminded of a peculiar episode in the life of the saint that St. Jerome records. In full, it reads:
But to return to the point at which I digressed. The blessed Paul had already lived on earth the life of heaven for a hundred and thirteen years, and Antony at the age of ninety was dwelling in another place of solitude (as he himself was wont to declare), when the thought occurred to the latter, that no monk more perfect than himself had settled in the desert. However, in the stillness of the night it was revealed to him that there was farther in the desert a much better man than he, and that he ought to go and visit him. So then at break of day the venerable old man, supporting and guiding his weak limbs with a staff, started to go: but what direction to choose he knew not. Scorching noontide came, with a broiling sun overhead, but still he did not allow himself to be turned from the journey he had begun. Said he, I believe in my God: some time or other He will show me the fellow-servant whom He promised me. He said no more. All at once he beholds a creature of mingled shape, half horse half man, called by the poets Hippocentaur. At the sight of this he arms himself by making on his forehead the sign of salvation, and then exclaims, Holloa! Where in these parts is a servant of God living? The monster after gnashing out some kind of outlandish utterance, in words broken rather than spoken through his bristling lips, at length finds a friendly mode of communication, and extending his right hand points out the way desired. Then with swift flight he crosses the spreading plain and vanishes from the sight of his wondering companion. But whether the devil took this shape to terrify him, or whether it be that the desert which is known to abound in monstrous animals engenders that kind of creature also, we cannot decide.
Antony was amazed, and thinking over what he had seen went on his way. Before long in a small rocky valley shut in on all sides he sees a mannikin with hooked snout, horned forehead, and extremities like goats’ feet. When he saw this, Antony like a good soldier seized the shield of faith and the helmet of hope: the creature none the less began to offer to him the fruit of the palm-trees to support him on his journey and as it were pledges of peace. Antony perceiving this stopped and asked who he was. The answer he received from him was this: I am a mortal being and one of those inhabitants of the desert whom the Gentiles deluded by various forms of error worship under the names of Fauns, Satyrs, and Incubi. I am sent to represent my tribe. We pray you in our behalf to entreat the favour of your Lord and ours, who, we have learned, came once to save the world, and ‘whose sound has gone forth into all the earth.’ As he uttered such words as these, the aged traveller’s cheeks streamed with tears, the marks of his deep feeling, which he shed in the fullness of his joy. He rejoiced over the Glory of Christ and the destruction of Satan, and marvelling all the while that he could understand the Satyr’s language, and striking the ground with his staff, he said, Woe to you, Alexandria, who instead of God worships monsters! Woe to you, harlot city, into which have flowed together the demons of the whole world! What will you say now? Beasts speak of Christ, and you instead of God worship monsters. He had not finished speaking when, as if on wings, the wild creature fled away. Let no one scruple to believe this incident; its truth is supported by what took place when Constantine was on the throne, a matter of which the whole world was witness. For a man of that kind was brought alive to Alexandria and shown as a wonderful sight to the people. Afterwards his lifeless body, to prevent its decay through the summer heat, was preserved in salt and brought to Antioch that the Emperor might see it.
Let it never be said that the lives of the saints are boring. Artists, like Demonologists, have throughout the centuries returned to these scenes again and again. The Centaur shows up a lot, probably because it’s a subject that permits the artist to show off his own talents at depicting both human and equine anatomy. Yet we can also detect here a certain visual sensibility that can only be described as picturesque delight and fascination.
don’t usually like to write two “Elsewhere” posts in a row, but
there’s a very good chapter talk on the Rule of St. Benedict
over at Vultus Christi that is, I believe, worthy of my readers’
attention. The author points to the spiritual fullness of the Rule. St.
Benedict gathers together the very best of the great spiritual traditions of
the Church. Put another, more historically correct way, his Rule has served as
the “wellspring” from which all manner of saints have drawn the
waters of life.
is the norm of the Christian life. It is the baptismal life as such, to which
every other charism must be compared. Those who do not have a priestly or
religious vocation are not exempt. Even those in the world must develop a
“monasticism of the heart,” a certain enmity towards the Flesh and a
love of God in the Mass. St. Benedict’s Rule, in its great flexibility and
simplicity, is a very good guide to achieving that inward state, itself an ever
more perfect conformity to Christ.
whole chapter is worth reading, but here’s an excerpt that struck me:
If you were or are attracted to Carmel, to Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross, or to Saint Thérèse and her Little Way, know that nothing of their teaching is missing from the Rule of Saint Benedict: purification of the heart, ceaseless prayer, secret exchanges with the Word, the Divine Bridegroom, and participation by patience in the Passion of Christ.
If you were or are drawn to Saint Dominic, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Catherine of Siena, know that the Rule of Saint Benedict calls you to the joy of the Gospel, to the love of chastity, to the quest for Truth, to confidence in the mercy of God for sinners, and to the ceaseless prayer of the heart represented by the Holy Rosary.
If you were or are fascinated by the Little Poor Man of Assisi, the Seraphic Saint Francis, know that the Rule of Saint Benedict offers you complete disappropriation to the point of having neither your body nor your will at your own disposal; that the Twelfth Degree of Humility is configuration to the Crucified Jesus; and that the adorable Body of Christ, the Sacred Host, shows you the perfection of monastic holiness in silence, hiddenness, poverty, and humility.
If you were or are charmed by Saint Philip and the Oratory, know that the Rule of Saint Benedict calls you to good cheer, to gentlemanly courtesy, to an ever greater infusion of the charity of God, that is the Holy Ghost.
Catholic who wants a deeper spiritual life cannot neglect the monastic tradition.
It brought forth all the others, and continues to enrich them. I have written
in the past on the likeness between St. Philip and St. Benedict.
Much more could be said for the monastic roots of each of the spiritual
families listed above.
can’t help but notice that one major stream of Latin Catholic spirituality is
absent from this list: Ignatian spirituality. Perhaps this is because the
Ignatian charism depends upon a subjective, individualistic, and pscyhologized
spiritual experience rather than the objective, external, communitarian piety
of liturgy that stands at the heart of St. Benedict’s Rule. This is not to say that
Ignatian spirituality is necessarily worse or that it cannot produce saints.
Nor is it to say that St. Ignatius could have produced his school without the
preceding sixteen centuries of spiritual development. But the assumptions of
Ignatian spirituality are so divorced from the monastic tradition as to
constitute a sui generis chapter in the history of Latin Spirituality.
St. Ignatius inaugurated a real break from the Western tradition of prayer and
ascesis, a break that was, in fact, little more than an epiphenomenon of the
advent of modernity in the prior century.
these historical-theological considerations are secondary to a deeper
admiration for the piece. May St. Benedict pray for all of us who would seek
the Face of God.
“What a shock, Maximiliana has to be the life of the party AGAIN.”
“I think the real trouble in the Church today is the shortage of lace.”
Princess-Abbess Christina zu Mecklenburg isn’t angry. She’s just disappointed.
“I’m not like a regular Princess-Abbess, I’m a cool Princess-Abbess. Observe my nude statues, dogs, and trendy collection of seashells.”
Winged headdresses are in this year.
“This crosier was made by fifty leper goldsmiths on a Greek island owned by the Doge of Venice. My uncle, the Cardinal of Trieste and Titular Abbot of Unter-Festschrift, gave it to me at my accession.”
Therese Natalie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Princess-Abbess of Gandersheim, with her pendulous string of pearls, miniature portrait bracelet, powdered blue watered silk sash, ermine, and bejewelled Bible, is a model of noble simplicity.
“Well, grey is a penitential color, after all. More than what you’re wearing, heathen.”
“They told me it was the crown or the hair. I chose the hair.”
The face when you realize that someone has spilled ketchup and mustard everywhere.
Marie Elisabeth von Holstein-Gottorf, Princess-Abbess of Quedlinburg, knows what you did. And she is not amused.
“What cloister is ever complete without tropical plants?”
Perhaps the most ubiquitous tradition of Christmas in America is decorating a Christmas tree. Whether live or artificial, green or white, festooned in tinsel or bedecked with bells, the Christmas tree is the image that adorns all our houses and heralds the coming of the Yuletide. And not just the houses of Christians. Many who celebrate Christmas as a merely secular holiday will still put up a tree. It just wouldn’t really feel like Christmas without it.
Yet the Christian discerns in this symbol something more than just a festive sign of the season.
First, a short excursus about symbols in general. Metaphor opens the speaker to the experience of “augmented reality,” though not at all in the way that phrase has come to be understood in the world of cheap tricks and tacky technology. Pokemon Go is not a metaphor. It’s just an add-on. It discerns nothing essential and establishes no real connections between unlike objects. Metaphor can. The truer the metaphor, the firmer the connection. It’s a dialectical process. Or, if you like a Trinitarian one: two unlike things are drawn together by the speaker, thus forming an entirely new third.
The Sophianic potential of language lies in metaphor. Name and metaphor permit us to imprint, image, and discern a level of reality beyond the merely immediate and sensible. That is why metaphor is impossible in the face of the Beatific Vision. All words die away, since the soul experiences the most heightened level of reality – Being itself.
Sophianic vision relies upon this kind of metaphorical thinking. Without dissolving the dogmas of the faith, Sophiology reads them sideways so as to gain an insight into the mystical realities more properly understood via poetry than, say, the logical language of the manuals. American Sophiologist Dr. Michael Martin has called for a “poetic metaphysics” by which we more potently discern the presence of God in His Wisdom, seen throughout Creation.
What would this “poetic metaphysics” look like beyond textual confines? That is, what would it look like if people actually lived out this search for the Wisdom of God?
For one thing, the soul that sees all in Wisdom will be always immersed in metaphor. The eyes of their heart would discern the connection of lower things to the higher. This is not mere cataphasis, the use of images in prayer. I mean that the daily impressions of life are experienced as taking place on more than one level of reality. The events of the day are read as symbols and metaphors. We encounter this in the life of the Ven. Seraphina di Dio:
“…Anything I looked at I was able to turn into a meditation… When I saw it raining, I thought of the refreshment which the rain brought to the earth and that without it the earth would be arid. I would say: ‘If the water of divine grace did not fall on the soul, it would dry up without providing the fruits of good works.’ … The sight of fish swimming in the sea made me remember how the saints are immersed in God… And in such wise everything, even the slightest things, served me for my spiritual nourishment.”
-Ven. Seraphina di Dio
Such is one example of sapiential living. We might turn to another. Over at Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has furnished a charming passage from St. John of Karpathos:
Nothing is more weak and powerless than a spider. It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and extreme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its own work. To those who love idleness it says, in effect : ‘If anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat’ (2 Thess. 3 : 1o). The spider is far more silent than Pythagoras, whom the ancient Greeks admired more than any other philosopher because of the control that he exercised over his tongue. Although Pythagoras did not talk with everyone, yet he did speak occasionally in secret with his closest friends; and often he lavished nonsensical remarks on oxen and eagles. He abstained altogether from wine and drank only water. The spider, however, achieves more than Pythagoras: it never utters a single word, and abstains from water as well as from wine. Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering about according to its fancy, always hard at work – nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord, ‘who dwells on high but sees what is lowly’ (Ps . 1 1 3 : 5-6 . LXX), extends His providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.
-St. John of Karpathos
One could name many other saints who exhibit this Sophianic tendency of vision through metaphor. For St. Paul of the Cross, as Fr. Faber notes,
“…everything served to remind him of God, and he used to imagine that all creatures cried out to entreat the love of man for Him who made them. He was often observed, when walking in the fields, to gaze earnestly at the flowers as he went along and to touch them with his stick, saying, ‘Hold your tongues; hold your tongues!’ And he used to tell his religious that the flowers were always calling upon them to lift up their hearts in love and adoration toward their heavenly Creator.”
-Fr. Faber, All For Jesus, Ch. 6, pg. 153
When carefully fostered in the soul – usually by ascetic rigors and conscious efforts of love – it ceases to be merely Sophianic and takes on an iconographic character, such that everything in our field of sensible experience becomes a symbol of union with the higher realm it represents. Namely, God. Thus can we preserve the presence of God in our waking hours out of prayer.
So what does this have to do with Christmas trees?
The decoration of a Christmas tree is, in a certain sense, a concrete realization of this process. Bringing a part of the natural world into our home imprints something of the human and thus of the spiritual. We can see this with animals who have been domesticated. Cats and dogs become part of the family. We discern their personalities. They are not just “dog” but “Buster” or “Gabby.” Thus, name and metaphor go hand in hand in elevating the merely natural to something approximating the human.
We don’t personalize Christmas trees. But in placing them in our homes and filling them with glittering lights and baubles, we heighten the tree into something more than what it was. As we were commanded to do in Eden, we improve the creation and make it radiant. We lend it a new beauty, the fruit of our Godlike creativity. We place a star or an angel at its peak, and a reminder of Our Lord’s Nativity at its base. Thus we turn it into a little Tree of Life, reaching between Heaven and Earth, the natural world manifested in the splendor of its potential divinization.*
In other words, the power of metaphor allows us to experience the tree as something more than what it is at the purely material level. It becomes for us an icon of Holy Wisdom, of Christ abiding in His redeemed Creation.
I am reminded of today’s O Antiphon.
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.
-O Antiphon for 17 Dec.
These words are manifested in so many ways throughout time and space. They don’t just belong to Advent. Yet the Christmas Tree can (if we come to it with a Sophianic imagination) serve as one meditative example of Wisdom “sweetly ordering all things” in this holy season.
It’s no surprise that Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov wrote favorably of the Christmas Tree.
*I realize of course that not all families use real trees, and that they don’t all place a Nativity under it. But even here, the power of metaphor enters in. In calling an assemblage of wire or aluminum or plastic a “tree,” we are already entering into the world of metaphor and artifice. In that case, we are only one degree removed from what I have described above.
I confess, I had meant to get this post out earlier. The end of term was hectic and the start of vacation distracting. So here I am, offering my thoughts on Advent reading when the season is already here and nearly halfway done. Still, we can begin to read true and edifying things on any day, especially in the a holy time set apart by the Church for reflection and contemplation of Our Lord in one of His cardinal mysteries. So I offer here a few reading ideas for those looking for a spiritual boost this winter.
1. In Sinu Jesu: When Heart Speaks to Heart – the Journal of a Priest at Prayer
This meditative book is the sort of thing you’ll want to take to Adoration. Written by an anonymous Benedictine monk, it is jam-packed with consoling thoughts and inspiring messages. The author relates the various locutions from Our Lord and, occasionally, the Virgin and Saints, received in the inward ear of the heart in the course of profound prayer. Over the course of several years’ worth of journal entries, we read of the author’s deep vocation to reparation and adoration for the sanctification of priests. I would recommend this volume to any men considering a vocation of any kind. Its rhythmic, prayerful passages breathe and bristle with a sense of holiness rare among contemporary spiritual authors. The voice of Our Lord sings through it all, not as a trumpet or thunderclap, but as “a whistling of a gentle air” (1 Kings 19:12 DRA). Speaking only as a layman, I can say that this book completely revolutionized my spiritual life. I wonder where I should be now if it had not come into my hands a little over two years ago.
2. Bethlehem or 3. All For Jesus
This list wouldn’t really be an Amish Catholic post about spiritual authors without some reference to Fr. Faber. The Apostle of London wrote many books about special devotions, graces, and mysteries of Our Lord’s life. His last volume, Bethlehem, is devoted to the birth and infancy of Jesus, making it especially suited for perusal at this season.
Like many of his other texts, Bethlehem is more devotional that practical. It is intended to inspire love for Our Lord under the particular mystery of his Incarnation. While this may be just what you need this Advent (and Christmas), you may desire something a bit more practical. How to grow in the practice of the love of Jesus? How to keep on in the unflagging task of Christian charity at a time so full of worldly distractions and weariness? How do we live out the Incarnation in our own lives?
If this is the sort of thing you’d prefer in your Advent reading, then perhaps turn to Fr. Faber’s first great devotional work, All For Jesus, or the Easy Ways of Divine Love.
In this great volume, it is Fr. Faber’s task to kindle the zeal of his readers by demonstrating the sheer ease of love. He points to concrete, simple practices by which to further what he calls “the Interests of Jesus,” to save other souls, and to sanctify our own.
All For Jesus is my main spiritual reading this Advent, and I have already found it working marvels. If you would love God with warmer enthusiasm and brighter joy, then read Fr. Faber!
4. “A Short Tale About the Antichrist.”
This short story by Vladimir Solovyov, the “Russian Newman,” may seem like an odd choice for Advent. Yet Advent is the apocalyptic season par excellence. The liturgy turns our ears to the voices of the prophets and our eyes towards the visions of the Last Day. And so it can be helpful to think creatively about what the end will be like.
I don’t believe Solovyov envisioned his (in some ways, rather prescient) tale of the future to be a literal prediction of what would happen. The man was not a fundamentalist, and this is not Left Behind. But he did see it as his spiritual last will and testament. The story is a powerful meditation on the nature of real evil, real Christian love, and what Christians will have to stand for in their last and terrible hour.
An edifying read, for sure.
5. The Book of Revelation
If you like your apocalypse unalloyed, then open your Bible, sit down, and read the entire Book of Revelation in one or two sittings. That may seem like a lot, but it brings lots of rewards. We often lose sight of the unity of the Bible’s individual books when we just pick at passages here and there. Reading the text fully through can help restore our vision of each book as what it is – an integral whole. With a book as symbol-laden as Revelation, that reclamation becomes even more important.
It is a holy and pious thing to meditate on the Second Coming of Our Lord in Advent. Reading the Apocalypse nourishes the soul’s sense of expectation and, indeed, her desire for the final judgment. The pious soul who seeks to be immersed in the text’s sapiential logic will gain many fruits. Those who go into it with only a narrow literalism will find nothing but an arid maze. This truth applies to all of Scripture, but most especially to its apocalyptic passages.
So, those are just five options for Advent reading. There are probably hundreds of other texts I could have chosen; thus we come one example of the great diversity that characterizes the true mind of the Church.
Canticum Salomonis has a great little piece on the Sequence of St. Denys. Liturgical nerds will find it of particular interest. It mainly attracts my own attention due to a fascinating tidbit:
Beginning with the new Parisian missal promulgated by the Lord Archbishop François de Harlay in 1684, the neo-Gallican liturgical books that festered in France during the Enlightenment Age altered this sequence to expunge any connection between St Dionysius the Areopagite and St Dionysius of Paris. The Abbey of St-Denys, however, remained firm in defending the Greek origins of its patron, and sung the original text until the Revolution.
I’m unaware of any serious scholarship so far that has plunged into the liturgical dynamics of the Revolution – though certainly, the Gallicans, Jansenists, and Cisalpines all had ideas about liturgical reform. What an intriguing project a deeper study might be. Perhaps John McManners has looked at it all already, and I simply haven’t gotten to that part of his famous and positively rococo two-volume study, Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France.
Saint-Denis was an important place in the 1780’s. Madame Louise, daughter of Louis XV and aunt of Louis XVI, entered the Carmel of Saint-Denis while her father was still alive. As Sister Thérèse de Saint-Augustin, she eventually rose to the rank of Prioress. Saint-Denis thus became a center of the Parti Dévot, the most conservative (some would say reactionary) part of the French court and church. It’s hardly surprising that the great Abbey there would likewise remain a bastion of liturgy that might otherwise be regarded as “superstitious” or “backwards” by the more radical portions of the French church.