The Church offers us the way of salvation. She declares the destination, Heaven; she notes our provenance, the bondage of our sinful nature. And she furnishes a route from the latter up to the former. Or, I might say, “routes.” For while the Cruciform road to Heaven may appear singular from afar, anyone who enters the Journey will find that it is in fact composed of many different paths. The holy diversity of the Church is one testament of its Catholicity. Like a great Cathedral or Basilica that appears as one massive edifice from the street but harbors dozens of little side-altars within, each distinctly the Table of the Lord, the Church offers more streams of spirituality than we can discern. Some flow still in our midst, giving life to multitudes. Others run dry. And some thought long-extinct may suddenly spring forth in new vim and vigor.
It is only a natural and concurrent fact that the Church should likewise offer her children a diverse array of spiritual writers. There is the beautiful, mysterious Areopagite; the mighty, noble St. Augustine; the dazzlingly imaginative St. Ephrem the Syrian; the logical, pacific Aquinas; the bloody consolations of Dame Julian; the gleaming shadows of St. John of the Cross; the brooding brilliance of Pascal; the soaring eloquence of Bossuet; the roseate cheer of St. Thérèse of Lisieux; the luminous fragmentation of T.S. Eliot; the Gothic grotesquerie of Flannery O’Connor. The list goes on and on.
The English Catholic Revival was a fertile time for spiritual writers. At the fountainhead of the entire movement stands Cardinal Newman, whose massive influence is still being felt by theologians and writers today. The founder of the English Oratory was a masterful stylist, so much so that James Joyce considered him the greatest master of English prose. Every ecclesiastical development proves that Newman’s theology is more timely than ever. He has been lauded by subsequent generations, and rightly so. When he is eventually canonized, he will certainly be declared a Doctor of the Church for his labors.
But he has, sadly, overshadowed another figure, one no less deserving of praise for his own work on behalf of the Gospel. That man is Fr. Frederick William Faber, the founder of the London Oratory.
Faber was an Oxford convert like Newman. After leaving the University, he first served as an Anglican parish priest in Northamptonshire. He would later bring eleven men with him across the Tiber when he resigned his post. After shepherding the community for a short time, he eventually joined forces with Newman and co-founded the English Oratory. They split the country. Newman went to Birmingham, and Faber went to London. In the course of his time there, he gained notoriety as a preacher of remarkable versatility and power, a widely-respected hymnodist, a constant friend of the poor, and an authoritative teacher of the spiritual life. As one source has it, his written works
…are a mine of spiritual gold of the highest purity, refined and drawn from Faber’s deep understanding of Catholic spiritual theology. For he had delved deeply, not only into the standard Scholastic philosophy and theology, but especially into the mystical schools. Father Faber was a brilliant man whose theology of the Absolute Primacy of Christ and Mary is grounded in that of the Subtle Doctor, Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), all recast in simple ordinary English. (174).
When he died, all the great Catholics of England honored his memory. In France, even the formidable abbot of Solesmes, Dom Prosper Guéranger, admired his writings and wrote of him fondly.
But Faber is a largely forgotten figure today, at least among American Catholics. While most have probably heard at least one or two of his hymns, such as “Faith of Our Fathers,” few read more deeply into his life or thought. Why? What has caused this lacuna in our collective memory?
There are, I think, two primary reasons.
The first is that he is eclipsed by Newman. The two had differences in their own day. Newman was resolutely opposed to the pretensions of Ultramonatism; Faber, like Cardinal Manning, was a strong advocate of Rome’s prerogatives. Newman always wanted to return to Oxford and restore some traces of his old, academic life; Faber was content to build the finest church of Great Britain in London, to better minister to the poor. Newman was always a little wary about Marian titles and devotions; Faber practically bathed in them. As Monsignor Rondald Knox writes in 1945,
While Faber is introducing the British public to the most luscious legends of the Counter-Reformation, Newman is still concerned over the difficulties of Anglicans, still asking how and in what sense Catholic doctrine has developed, still cautiously delimiting the spheres of faith and reason. (“The Conversions of Newman and Faber,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 875).
The tensions surrounding Faber’s spirituality eventually led Newman to formally, judicially separate the two houses. Sadly, “While Newman visited Faber shortly before his death, the two men were not able to fully resolve their differences.”
The second, related to the first, is part stylistic, part spiritual. Consider an analogy. Among the Metaphysical Poets, the meditative Donne has always outshone the ebullient Crashaw. Logos is easy to parse. Its analysis is a straightforward, if sometimes arduous task. Pathos, however, is a more slippery beast altogether, and one less communicable and less persistent than we should like to think. It may fire one breast and repel another. Not all hearts chime the same tune in the same wind. Likewise, Newman’s depth, intellect, and style have garnered more attention than Faber’s flowery devotions. His devotional prose is as purple as it gets. Consider the following passage, taken from Part I of “The Mystery of the Precious Blood.”
SALVATION! What music is there in that word – music that never tires but is always new, that always rouses yet always rests us! It holds in itself all that our hearts would say. It is sweet vigor to us in the morning, and in the evening it is contented peace. It is a song that is always singing itself deep down in the delighted soul. Angelic ears are ravished by it up in Heaven; and our Eternal Father Himself listens to it with adorable complacency. It is sweet even to Him out of Whose mind is the music of a thousand worlds. To be saved! What is it to be saved? Who can tell? Eye has not seen, nor ear heard. It is a rescue, and from such a shipwreck. It is a rest, and in such an unimaginable home. It is to lie down forever in the bosom of God in an endless rapture of insatiable contentment. (“The Mystery of the Precious Blood“)
Or, later in the same volume, when he writes the following passage.
Green Nazareth was not a closer hiding-place than the risen glory of the Forty Days. As of old, the Precious Blood clung round the sinless Mother. Like a stream that will not leave its parent chain of mountains, but laves them incessantly with many an obstinate meandering, so did the Blood of Jesus, shed for all hearts of men, haunt the single heart of Mary. Fifteen times, or more in those Forty Days, it came out from under the shadow of Mary’s gladness and gleamed forth in beautiful apparitions. Each of them is a history in itself, and a mystery, and a revelation. Never did the Sacred Heart say or do such ravishing things as those Forty Days of its Risen Life. The Precious Blood had almost grown more human from having been three days in the keeping of the Angels. But, as it had mounted Calvary on Good Friday, so now it mounts Olivet on Ascension Thursday, and disappears into Heaven amidst the whiteness of the silver clouds. It had been but a decree in Heaven before, a Divine idea, an eternal compassion, an inexplicable complacency of the life of God. It returns thither a Human Life, and is throned at the Right Hand of the Father forever in right of its inalienable union with the Person of the Word. There is no change in the Unchangeable. But in Heaven there had never been change like this before, nor ever will be again. The changes of the Great Doom can be nothing compared to the exaltation of the Sacred Humanity of the Eternal Word. The very worship of the glorious spirits was changed, so changed that the Angels themselves cannot say how it is that no change has passed on God. Somehow the look of change has enhanced the magnificence of the Divine immutability, and has given a new gladness to their adoration of its unspeakable tranquility (“The History of the Precious Blood“).
Or this passage from The Blessed Sacrament, taken from a friend who posted it on Facebook for the Nativity of Mary.
Let us mount higher still. Earth never broke forth with so gay and glad fountain as when the Babe Mary, the infant who was the joy of the whole world, the flower of God’s invisible creation, and the perfection of the invisible and hitherto queenless angels of His court, came like the richest fruit, ready-ripe and golden, of the world’s most memorable September. There is hardly a feast in the year so gay and bright as this of her Nativity, right in the heart of the happy harvest, as though she were, as indeed she was, earth’s heavenliest growth, whose cradle was to rock to the measures of the worlds vintage songs; for she had come who was the true harvest-home that homeless world.
His devotion to Our Lady was legendary. He was, in fact, the first English translator of St. Louis de Montfort’s famous text, True Devotion to Mary…and that even before he had become an Oratorian! He was also probably the first English author to think of Mary as Co-Redemptrix. In one of his hymns, he declares:
Mother of God! we hail thy heart,
Throned in the azure skies,
While far and wide within its charm
The whole creation lies.
O sinless heart, all hail!
God’s dear delight, all hail!
Our home, our home is deep in thee,
Fr. Faber’s devotion to Our Lady extended beyond his prolific writings. He not only translated St. Louis’s book. In 1846, he undertook his own Marian consecration in the Holy House of Loreto. He had a tendency to refer to the Mother of God as “Mama.” A famous episode related by Monsignor Knox depicts Fr. Faber at one of his more florid moments. After a particularly high Marian procession at the Oratory, he was observed weeping. Without any care for who heard, he cried out, “Won’t Mamma be pleased?” (“The Conversion of Faber,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 891).
None of this spirituality or the writing in which it comes to us fits our modern tastes. It is too perfumed, too sickly-sweet, too campy, too Victorian, too decadent, too redolent of pastel holy cards mouldering in antique prayer books. One critic puts it thus:
There are great slabs of passages, sometimes chapters at a time, which glow with ethereal light but have little content. Hypnotized by his own fluency Faber flows on and on, melodious and tedious…There are awful lapses of taste. (Chapman, quoted here).
And certainly, Faber cared not one shred for taste. The only thing that mattered was the salvation and sanctification of souls. Knox tells us that “‘Art for art’s sake’ had no meaning for him…if a bad verse would have more chance of winning souls than a good verse, down the bad verse would go” (“The Conversion of Faber,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 891). There is much to criticize in this tendency from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Christians should commit themselves to the highest standards in all artistic and literary endeavors.
But it is hard not to like the man weeping after the procession; it is harder still to feel totally averse to passages that glow purple as the evening sky. One has the sense that Fr. Faber would have been a remarkable presence today, if only because his emotionalism and baroque, slightly kitschy aesthetic would have made him an ironic celebrity on Weird Catholic Twitter. Imagine what he would have done with memes!
Yet he would also be a sign of contradiction. We have seen a renewed emphasis on Muscular Christianity, with a proliferation of websites, associations, and thinkpieces all dedicated to restoring “authentic masculinity” and resisting the “feminization” of the liturgy. This is a particularly popular movement within the larger Traditionalist wing of the Church. In brief, the narrative usually runs as follows:
1) After Vatican II, the Novus Ordo initiated a new, “feminine” form of the Mass.
2) This innovation was a substantive capitulation to the Sexual Revolution.
3) Men don’t want to serve a feminized Church in a feminized liturgy, with altar girls, felt banners, versus populum, happy-clappy music, etc.
4) The vocations crisis of the last 30-40 years ensues.
5) As such, we need to restore more pronounced gender binaries and hierarchies along with the Usus Antiquior.
Some of this narrative may be correct. I refrain from judging its particular historical claims, social implications, or theological presuppositions.
Nevertheless, Fr. Faber confounds that entire way of thinking. He was anything but a “Muscular” Christian. His personality, style, and spirituality were so clearly “feminine” that his own nephew, the publisher Geoffrey Faber, considered him a probable closet case (see David Hilliard’s famous essay “UnEnglish and Unmanly,” page 5). Whether or not his (disputed) conclusions about the priest (and all the leaders of the Oxford Movement) are true, it suffices to say that Fr. Faber was far from the “authentically masculine” man fetishized by the new Muscular Christianity. Yet liturgically he was known as one of the highest of the high, and his sons at the Brompton Oratory continue that admirable tradition. If nothing else, Fr. Faber’s legacy is the Oratory that still stand as a landmark of reverence, beauty, and transcendent holiness in the midst of postconciliar banality.
What’s more, Fr. Faber is not just a fine hymnodist and devotional writer. He penetrated deep mysteries of the faith. A thoroughgoing Scotist, he advocated the thesis (shared by this author) that Christ probably would have been incarnated anyway even if Adam had never fallen. And as the Church’s Mariology continues to develop, his arguments on behalf of Our Lady’s Co-Redemption may yet prove invaluable. Sophiologists should take note. Here is a man after our own heart.
Fr. Faber writes of Our Lady’s suffering in a passage worth quoting at length:
But this is not all. She co-operated with our Lord in the redemption of the world in quite a different sense, a sense which can never be more than figuratively true of the Saints. Her free consent was necessary to the Incarnation, as necessary as free will is to merit according to the counsels of God. She gave Him the pure blood, out of which the Holy Ghost fashioned His Flesh and bone and Blood. She bore Him in her womb for nine months, feeding Him with her own substance. Of her was He born, and to her He owed all those maternal offices which, according to common laws, were necessary for the preservation of His inestimable life. She exercised over Him the plenitude of parental jurisdiction. She consented to His Passion; and if she could not in reality have withheld her consent, because it was already involved in her original consent to the Incarnation, nevertheless she did not in fact withhold it, and so He went to Calvary as her free-will offering to the Father. Now, this is co-operation in a different sense from the former, and if we compare it with the co-operation of the Saints, their own co-operation, in which Mary herself alone surpassed them all, we shall see that this other peculiar co-operation of hers was indispensable to the redemption of the world as effected on the Cross. Souls could be saved without the co-operation of the Saints. The soul of the penitent thief was saved with no other co-operation than that of Mary, and, if our Blessed Lord had so willed it, could have been saved without even that. But the co-operation of the Divine Maternity was indispensable. Without it our Lord would not have been born when and as He was; He would not have had that Body to suffer in; the whole series of the Divine purposes would have been turned aside, and either frustrated, or diverted into another channel. It was through the free will and blissful consent of Mary that they flowed as God would have them flow. Bethlehem, and Nazareth, and Calvary, came out of her consent, a consent which God did in no wise constrain. But not only is the co-operation of the Saints not indispensable of itself, but no one Saint by himself is indispensable to that co-operation. Another Apostle might have fallen, half the Martyrs might have sacrificed to idols, the Saints in each century might have been a third fewer in number than they were, and yet the co-operation of the Saints would not have been destroyed, though its magnificence would have been impaired. Its existence depends on the body, not on the separate individuals. No one Saint who can be named, unless perhaps it were in some sense St. Peter, was necessary to the work, so necessary that without him the work could not have been accomplished. But in this co-operation of Mary she herself was indispensable. It depended upon her individually. Without her the work could not have been accomplished. Lastly, it was a co-operation of a totally different kind from that of the Saints. Theirs was but the continuation and application of a sufficient redemption already accomplished, while hers was a condition requisite to the accomplishment of that redemption. One was a mere consequence of an event which the other actually secured, and which only became an event by means of it. Hence it was more real, more present, more intimate, more personal, and with somewhat of the nature of a cause in it, which cannot in any way be predicated of the co-operation of the Saints. And all this is true of the co-operation of Mary, without any reference to the dolors at all…Our Lord had taken a created nature, in order that by its means He might accomplish that great work; so it seemed as if the highest honor and the closest union of a sinless creature with Himself should be expressed in the title of co-redemptress. In fact, there is no other single word in which the truth could be expressed; and, far off from His sole and sufficient redemption as Mary’s co-operation lies, her co-operation stands alone and aloof from all the co-operation of the elect of God. This, like some other prerogatives of our Blessed Lady, cannot have justice done it by the mere mention of it. We must make it our own by meditation before we can understand all that it involves. But neither the Immaculate Conception nor the Assumption will give us a higher idea of Mary’s exaltation than this title of co-redemptress, when we have theologically ascertained its significance. Mary is vast on every side, and, as our knowledge and appreciation of God grow, so also will grow our knowledge and appreciation of her His chosen creature. No one thinks unworthily of Mary, except because he thinks unworthily of God. Devotion to the Attributes of God is the best school in which to learn the theology of Mary; and the reward of our study of Mary lies in a thousand new vistas that are opened to us in the Divine Perfections, into which except from her heights we never could have seen at all.
(“The Compassion of Mary,” emphases in source.)
There is much in this text, and in so many like it, to warm a Catholic’s flagging devotion to the Mother of God. For that treasure alone, we should be grateful.
As his writing on this subject demonstrates, Father Faber was in all things the most enthusiastic and the most Roman of Catholics. Yet his prodigious work on behalf of the Gospel, and the ardor with which he was wont to express himself, made him a popular figure even among Protestants. His hymns are sung by traditional and mainline Protestant churches even today.
A.W. Tozer held him in high esteem, going so far as to write:
Spinoza wrote of the intellectual love of God, and he had a measure of truth there; but the highest love of God is not intellectual, it is spiritual. God is spirit and only the spirit of man can know Him really. In the deep spirit of a man the fire must glow or his love is not the true love of God. The great of the Kingdom have been those who loved God more than others did. We all know who they have been and gladly pay tribute to the depths and sincerity of their devotion. We have but to pause for a moment and their names come trooping past us smelling of myrrh and aloes and cassia out of the ivory palaces. Frederick Faber was one whose soul panted after God as the roe pants after the water brook, and the measure in which God revealed Himself to his seeking heart set the good man’s whole life afire with a burning adoration rivaling that of the seraphim before the throne. His love for God extended to the three Persons of the Godhead equally, yet he seemed to feel for each One a special kind of love reserved for Him alone. The Pursuit of God, p. 40 (quoted here)
If a modern master of Protestant spirituality can appreciate the peculiar wisdom of this effusive little man, then what excuse do we have? The Church has entrusted him to our memory and will, I hope, some day do so formally at the altar of God.
I began this essay describing the various spiritualities that have animated the Church from its earliest days. Some remain vital, others have disappeared, and some may yet come back from quietude. The strange and fragrant spirituality Father Faber let out into the world may appear as one of those dried-up streams, never again to impart life to the desert of our world. We are not Victorians. Yet this great Oratorian offers his gift to us still. We are the ones who must accept it. I have little doubt that his life, example, and thought are welcome aids in our pursuit of Heaven.