100,000 Views

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This deserves some celebration. (Source)

What a milestone. When I started The Amish Catholic in February of 2017, I had no idea it would take off like this. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read, share, or comment upon my work. I appreciate your consideration.

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Prosaic Relics

Earlier this week, I went to the Birmingham Oratory for the Feast of Bl. John Henry Newman. Fr. Ignatius Harrison, the Provost, was kind enough to open up the Oratory house to me. I must offer him my tremendous thanks for his hospitable willingness to let me see such an incredible (and, it must be said, holy) place. Likewise, I thank Br. Ambrose Jackson of the Cardiff Oratory for taking time out of his busy schedule to give me what was an extraordinarily memorable tour. I went away from the experience with a rekindled devotion to Cardinal Newman.

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Your humble servant in Cardinal Newman’s own library. Photo taken by Br. Ambrose Jackson of the Cardiff Oratory. You can see Cardinal Newman’s violin case on the lower shelf of his standing desk at right.

There were many striking and beautiful sights at the Oratory – not the least of which was the Pontifical High Mass in the Usus Antiquior, celebrated by His Excellency, Bishop Robert Byrne. Even from so short an experience, I can tell that the Birmingham Oratory is one of the places where Catholicism is done well, where the Beauty of Holiness is made manifest for the edification of all the faithful. I walked away from that Mass feeling drawn upwards into something supernal, something far beyond my ken. This place that so palpably breathes the essence of Cardinal Newman is, as it were, an island of grace and recollection amidst a worldand, sadly, a Churchso often inimical to things of the spirit.

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The Birmingham Oratory with the relics of the Blessed Cardinal displayed for veneration by the faithful. This photo was taken by the author shortly before Mass.

Yet amidst all this splendor, I found myself peculiarly drawn to one very quiet, very easy-to-miss relic. It lies in the little chapel to St. Philip Neri to the left of the altar; in this placement, one can see the influence of the Chiesa Nuova on Newman and his sons, who modeled their house’s customs on Roman models. And so it is only appropriate to find relics of St. Philip there in that small and holy place, so evocative of the great father’s final resting place.

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The altar of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham Oratory. Photo taken by the author.

The collection of relics in the chapel are mostly second-class. These are not pieces of the body, but materials that touched St. Philip either in his life or after his death. One of these small items spoke to me in an especially strong way.

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The little grey pouch you see to the left is St. Philip’s spectacle case. There is nothing terribly remarkable about it. It may not even be entirely intact, for all I know. A visible layer of dust covers the case, and a hard-to-read, handwritten label is all that identifies its use and provenance. No one comes to the Birmingham Oratory to see what once held St. Philip’s glasses. But of all the glorious relics I saw that day some encrusted in gold, some taken from rare and holy men, some evoking the perilous lives of saints who lived in a more heroic ageit was this humble artifact that most fired my imagination.

A spectacle case is no great thing. It does not shift the balance of empires or change the course of history. But humility and nobility are close cousins all the same. Here we come upon St. Philip in his quotidian life. A saint so marvelously strange, so crammed with the supernatural, so flame-like in darting from one miracle to another, nevertheless bent his fingers to the perfectly ordinary task of opening this case and taking out his spectacles so that he might see just a little better. It is a true maxim that grace builds upon nature. We have been told of St. Philip’s many graces. Here we find him in his nature; frail and imperfect and in need of just a little aid, so like our own.

The supernatural never erases the natural, and God is never more glorified than in our weakness. The hands that took up this case and opened it and drew forth its contents, perhaps a little fumblingly from time to time, are the very same thaumaturgic hands that lifted a prince out of death and Hell so that he might make his final confession. We know the story of the miracle. How rarely do we ponder the everyday conditions of its operation! How rarely do we consider those hands in their ordinary life.

There is a tendency with St. Philipas with many saints, and with Our Lord Himselfto reduce his life to one or two features. Some would make him an avuncular chap, always happy to laugh and thoroughly pleasant to be around, a jokester, a picture of joy and friend to all. On the other hand, we can get lost in the extraordinarily colorful miracles that mark St. Philip’s life, losing him in a fog of pious pictures and pablum. Neither captures his essence. The true middle way is to maintain a healthy sense of the bizarrean approach that recognizes the extraordinary in-breaking of the supernatural precisely because it appreciates the ordinary material of St. Philip’s day-to-day existence. It was this view that Fr. Ignatius himself recommended, though perhaps with a greater emphasis on the “weird,” in his homily delivered last St. Philip’s day.

I was reminded of this double reality when I saw St. Philip’s spectacle case. Prosaic relics carry this two-fold life within them more vividly than those upon which our ancestors’ piety has elaborated in glass and gold. Even Cardinal Newman’s violin case is not so markedly dual in this way; after all, every instrument belongs to that human portion of the supernatural we call “art.” Music, paintings, and other aesthetic forms all lift the human soul out of itself and into another world. In some ways, they are cousins both to Our Lady and to the Sacraments, God’s masterpieces of the sensible creation. Yet a spectacle casehow utilitarian. How plain. How merely functional. There is no poetry in a spectacle case. One can imagine writing a poem about a violinthe sinuous form of the wood almost suggests it, and more so when it carries a connection with so great a man as Newmanbut a spectacle case? Drab as this one is, its beauty comes only from the story it tells, from the life it once served, from the little help it gave its owner in his acquisition of beatitude.

Too often we wish to be God’s violins. In our quest for holiness, we wish to be admired, to cast our voice abroad, to give and seek beauty. These are not necessarily unworthy goals. But they are not the most important thing. Too infrequently do we turn our mind to the spectacle case. All too rarely do we seek our holiness in the gentle, quiet, everyday task of being useful, unnoticed, and present to God precisely when He needs us.

St. Philip knew how to be both, when he needed to be. May we learn to be like him in this as in so many respects.

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The effigy of Holy Father Philip, Chapel of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham Oratory. Photo taken by author.

 

Faber’s Oxford Poems: Part I

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A view of the Bodleian Library from Radcliffe Square. Photo taken by author.

Fr. Frederick William Faber, that great son of St. Philip, was one of the many Oxford converts. He was a Balliol man who later became a fellow of University College, where he embarked on an ecclesiastical career as an Anglican. Later, of course, he came to the Church of Rome and founded the London Oratory. But as I am now settling back into Oxford, I thought it might my readers might enjoy a few of his poems about life at the University. I’ll probably break the collection up into a few different posts. Although Faber was later famous as a hymn-writer, in his youth he was a Romantic poet who won the admiration of none other than Wordsworth, whom he met in the Lake District. Faber’s style may be rather too Victorian for our tastes today. They also represent his spirituality at a very immature stage, when he was still an Anglican. The contrast between “College Chapel’s” rather pathetic final line and Faber’s “Muscular” pose in “College Hall” amuses, to say the least. But occasionally, as in “College Garden,” his sensuality and yearning anticipate the best of the Decadents who came at the end of the century. Finally, I’ll add that Faber’s romantic attachment to the legends and traditions of the English medieval monastics once again confirms my point that there remains an abiding affinity between the Oratorian and Benedictine charisms. 

College Chapel

A shady seat by some cool mossy spring,
Where solemn trees close round, and make a gloom,
And faint and earthy smells, as from a tomb,
Unworldly thoughts and quiet wishes bring:
Such hast thou been to me each morn and eve;
Best loved when most thy call did interfere
With schemes of toil or pleasure, that deceive
And cheat young hearts; for then thou mad’st me feel
The holy Church more night, a thing to fear.
Sometimes, all day with books, thoughts proud and wild
Have risen, till I saw the sunbeams steal
Through painted glass at evensong, and weave
Their threefold tints upon the marble near,
Faith, prayer, and love, the spirit of a child!

College Hall

Still may the spirit of the ancient days
Rest on our feasts, nor self-indulgence strive
Nor languid softness to invade the rule,
Manly, severe, and chastethe hardy school
Wherein our might fathers learnt to raise
Their souls to Heaven, and virtue best could thrive.
They, who have felt how oft the hour is past
In idle, worldly talk, would fain recall
The brazen Eagle that in times of yore
Was wont to stand in each monastic hall;
From whence the Word, or some old Father’s lore,
Or Latin hymns that spoke of sin and death
Were gravely read; and lowly-listening faith
In silence grew, at feast as well as fast.

College Garden

Sacred to early morn and evening hours,
Another chapel reared for other prayers,
And full of gifts,smells after noon-day showers,
When bright-eyed birds look out from leafy bowers,
And natural perfumes shed on midnight airs,
And bells and old church-clocks and holy towers,
All heavenly images that cluster round.
The rose, and pink acacia, and green vine
Over the fretted wall together twine,
With creepers fair and many, woven up
Into religious allegories, made
All out of strange Church meanings, and inlaid
With golden thoughts, drunk from the dewy cup
Of morns and evenings spent in that dear ground!

College Library

A churchyard with a cloister running round
And quaint old effigies in act of prayer,
And painted banners mouldering strangely there
Where mitered prelates and grave doctors sleep,
Memorials of a consecrated ground!
Such is this antique room, a haunted place
Where dead men’s spirits come, and angels keep
Long hours of watch with wings in silence furled.
Early and late have I kept vigil here:
And I have seen the moonlight shadows trace
Dim glories on the missal’s blue and gold,
The work of my monastic sires that told
Of quiet ages men call dark and drear,
For Faith’s soft light is darkness to the world.

90,000 Views

90000-readers

Never expected this to happen.

Some time this month, The Amish Catholic received its 90,000th view. Thank you to all my readers for sticking with me, arguing with me, referring me, and generally paying attention.

The Best Monastic Documentaries: Eastern Edition

A few months ago, I published a post entitled “The Best Monastic Documentaries.” It was quickly pointed out to me that, although I had covered several good features, they were all about Western monks. So I decided that, once I had the time, I would assemble a review of the best documentaries covering Eastern Monasticism. That time has finally arrived! So buckle up, get out your chotki, and watch some of these films.

60 Minutes Goes to Mount Athos

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Simonopetra Monastery, Mount Athos, one of the monasteries profiled by 60 Minutes. (Source)

In 2011, viewers who tuned into the Christmas episode of CBS’s popular weekly news-documentary series, 60 Minutes, were greeted with an extraordinarily rare treat. For the first time in thirty years, the monks of Mount Athos had opened up their peninsula to a television crew. I remember when it premiered; this was one of my earliest encounters with the monastic tradition of the East. Bob Simon layers on the journalistic smarm, clearly stunned by and slightly distasteful at the various sacrifices and remnants of Medieval life on the Holy Mountain. Nevertheless, the holy simplicity of the monks that he interviews nevertheless shines through. I’m particularly impressed with the testimony to perpetual prayer – the prayer of the heart – given in this film. And luckily enough for us, both Part 1 and Part 2 can both be found online.

One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery

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The sound of the wooden doaca awakens the monks from their sleep and calls them to prayer. (Source)

This quiet, reverent film covers the daily routine of a monastery in Georgia. There is no dialogue and no plot, per se. We don’t follow the actions of any single monk. But the viewer does gain an insight into the feeling of the monastic rhythm in this little, faraway community of Abkhazia. Viewers who have seen Into Great Silence will recognize a very similar style in this film. My only criticism is that there’s rather too much focus on the work of the monks, and not enough on their prayer. Still, those moments of prayer we do see are also noteworthy for clearly showing the larger lay community that depends upon the monastery for spiritual sustenance. This short film is thus perhaps the most poetic production on our list.

The Brethren

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They’re pretty hard core. (Source)

Monks have always sought “the desert,” though sometimes that desert takes the form of tundra. The monks of Trifonov Pechengsky monastery, Kolsky Peninsula, Russia, must be some of the northernmost monastics on earth. This intimate portrait of the community  gives insight not only into the externals of ascetic life at the edge of the world, but also the reasons why men become and remain monks. It also shows, in a more explicit way than One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery, that the monks play an important role in their small town’s life and history.

“Hermits of Our Times – Orthodox Christian Monasticism (Hesychasm)”

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Monastic wisdom. (Source)

To be fair, this isn’t really a documentary. It seems to be footage from a Romanian Orthodox news service taken in the late 1990’s. But it does shine a helpful spotlight on modern anchorites (then) living in the Romanian forest. Anchorites are not monks per se; at least, they are not cenobites, living in cells within a larger community. They are hermits who may once have been attached to a community but now seek God in solitude. I always find myself deeply impressed by the simplicity and manifest wisdom of these holy men whenever I return to this clip. I am reminded of the sayings of the Optina Elders, the Desert Fathers, or even my good St. Philip Neri.

“The Motorbike Rider Who Became a Monk”

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The basics of monastic life, as communicated by a monk in Israel. (Source)

Again, I’m not sure this technically counts as a documentary. But it’s a good interview with a Cypriot who became a monk in Israel, at St. Gerasimos Monastery. One of the great strengths of this film, besides relating a vocation story, is the emphasis it places on the role of the Elder or Spiritual Father. For the Eastern Orthodox, and especially for monks, there is a spiritual lineage passed on from one old monk to younger ones (or to those in the world). In the West, we have mostly lost the sense of Spiritual Fatherhood by dividing its roles between the confessor and the spiritual director, neither of which carries the same weight as the Spiritual Father. But this short and helpful film is a good reminder of what still persists in the monastic tradition.

Behind the Monastery Walls

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Inside a Romanian monastery. (Source)

This 2011 documentary looks at the personal stories of various monks and nuns in Romania. It’s an artfully made piece, with a very good choral track throughout. But I admire its spiritual insights more than its aesthetic notes. Although the filmmaker does not seem to take a definitively Christian standpoint, she allows the monastics to speak for themselves. They provide a remarkable testimony to the strength of Orthodox traditions in the wake of Communism. We see not only the monks and nuns themselves, but  also the devotional practices of ordinary believers who come to the monasteries. There are, for instance, many prostrations before icons. I also enjoyed the film for my own personal reasons. Romanian monasticism will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was a trip to a Transylvanian monastery that started my conversion, about seven years ago.

I’m sure there are other examples one could point to, but for now, these are some good places to start. They cover a wide range of Orthodox practices and values, all refracted through the lens of its monastic tradition.

 

 

A Century on the Precious Blood

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The Golden Tree and Achievement of the Holy Grail, Edwin Austin Abbey, c. 1895. (Source)

1. When the Holy Ghost hovered over the waters, the uncreated light that shone from His face turned the waters red after the likeness of the Most Precious Blood.

2. The Most High made all things with breath and water and fire. He made all things for His love, that is to say, under the Blood. At the beginning were breath and water and fire under Blood. At the end will be breath and water and fire joined to Blood.

3. The four rivers, when traced back to their source, become one in the Garden, and the source of that one river is the well in Christ’s side.

4. The juice in the fruit of the Tree of Life is the Precious Blood.

5. When Cain murdered Abel, the Lord reproached him with the words, “Thy brother’s bloods cry out to me from the dust,” thereby speaking for the blood of all the generations of Abel destined never to bear fruit. Likewise, when Isaac was led to sacrifice, it was the first thirst of the Precious Blood of Christ contained therein. Its presence by anticipation in Isaac’s blood both set him apart as a sacrifice and saved him from death.

6. The flood that cleansed the world of sin was the earthly mirror of the heavenly flood of Divine Blood.

7. Yet even a flood that covered the whole face of the earth is as nothing before the torrents of Blood stored up in the Heart of the Most High.

8. When God set His bow in the clouds, every color spoke of some hidden secret. Red, the color of Blood, spoke silently of the mysterium tremendum.

9. The sacrifice of Isaac was a consecration of his blood into an eternal likeness of the Lamb’s Precious Blood.

10. When Moses prayed, and the Nile turned to blood, that blood was but an imitation of the Heavenly Blood that would deal death to the wicked powers.

11. When the Jews covered their doors in the blood of the Passover, that blood was but a foretaste of the Heavenly Blood that would deliver the whole world from death and bondage.

12. The sea that bowed before the people of Israel but covered their persecutors worked after the pattern of the Precious Blood.

13. The Martyr is like unto the rock that sent forth pure water at Massah and Meribah. The life-giving stream let loose from the stricken flesh of the Martyr is the very Blood of Christ.

14. The name of God, Jehovah-Jireh, refers to the Blood of Christ unfurled upon the Cross Triumphant.

15. The true and eternal Israel is constituted by the anointing of the Most Precious Blood.

16. The Precious Blood covers all who seek it with a dazzling darkness.

17. When the face of Moses shone, it was because his blood had been made like the Lamb’s. Truly, he had washed well in the torrent of the Word.

18. The cord of Rahab the Prostitute took its crimson hue from the Precious Blood.

19. The blood-stained cord of Rahab brought salvation to her household and joined her to the Nation of Israel. So it is with all who trust in the Precious Blood.

20. The blood-stained cord of Rahab is the earthly likeness of that heavenly cord that ties together the World.

21. The Precious Blood built the Temple.

22. The Precious Blood hallowed the Temple.

23. The Temple and the Precious Blood are, in their innermost being, one and the same.

24. The Blood belongs to the Altar, as the Altar belongs to the Blood.

25. The Precious Blood speaks from the Altar.

26. The Precious Blood is never apart from the Altar. Wherever it flows, it is an offering to the Most High.

27. The Altar of the Blood is the World’s foundation. None can hope to build anything that lasts if he would forsake this cornerstone.

28. Before the third and celestial Temple was built, the Lord was content to dwell in darkness. This was the time when the Precious Blood grew and resided in the Ark.

29. The Precious Blood is a sea in which Leviathan drowns.

30. The Lord leadeth me by the still waters, lays out a table before me, anoints me with oil, and maketh my cup to run over. All of these, like the four rivers of the Garden, go up into one great deed; for the Lord has given me His Blood.

31. The Lord hath founded the Earth upon the floods, and Zion upon His Blood.

32. As the hart panteth for the water of the brooks, so must our hearts pant for the Blood of the Lamb.

33. Though our tears be our meat in this day of mourning, soon we shall have the Blood of the Lamb and His heart for an imperishable repast.

34. The Lord is my Rock because His Blood rests on the Altar.

35. The Most Precious Blood is the help of my countenance.

36. The flood and waters that speak in the Heavens are drawn from the Precious Blood.

37. When God blots out our transgressions, He uses the Most Precious Blood.

38. Idols are bloodless gods.

39. The gift of the Bride is water. The gift of the Bridegroom is Blood.

40. The Precious Blood delights, nourishes, bears, imparts, and sanctifies all Wisdom.

41. The Precious Blood is the storm out of Heaven.

42. The Precious Blood may be consumed in two ways: on a scroll, or in the cup.

43. When the Prophet came to a valley of bones, he saw that they were dry. He said this because they had lost their blood.

44. The dry bones rose again when they were watered with the Precious Blood of the Lamb, that is, when the Prophet let loose the supernal fountains of the Word.

45. Blood flows from the Temple and sweetens the Sea. The Kingdom is re-drawn from the boundaries of Blood.

46. The Kingdom and the Temple are one in its Priest-King, that is to say, they join in the Precious Blood.

47. All the fruits in the Land of Zion are watered by the Blood of the Lamb.

48. Where there is no blood, there is the Desert.

49. Some are led out to the Desert for battle. If they fight with the luminous arms of the Precious Blood, they will triumph.

50. The Desert will bloom in Blood then, and the warriors will discover surpassing delights beyond all imagining.

51. Any seed that the Precious Blood waters will bloom into a great and mighty tree, and the birds of the air will come to nest in its branches.

52. The Pearl of Great Price is hidden in the Sea of the Precious Blood.

53. Oh wonder of wonders! The Mercy of God took up matter, and manifested itself to the senses of mortal men. For it clothed itself in the red raiment of the Precious Blood.

54. The Word is written in the Precious Blood.

55. Every letter in the Word is a bottomless well and roaring flood of the Precious Blood.

56. The torrents of the Blood sing only one word, the Name.

57. The Angels take their song from the voice of the rivers, from the pulse of the High Priest’s heart, from the roars of the waterfalls of His Blood.

58. The Forerunner rejoiced and cried aloud, “Behold the Lamb of God!” He did so because he saw the one who would fill the rivers of repentance with His Blood.

59. The Precious Blood is deathless life and Fleshless food.

60. The Precious Blood, let loose by wounds and sins, can heal every wound and sin.

61. We who are born of blood must be born of a new and supernal Blood, hidden from the beginning of the world.

62. We are called sheep because we have been covered in the Blood of the Lamb.

63. Providence writes the history of the Last and Everlasting Day in the ink of the Most Precious Blood.

64. Most lamps are fed with oil. The seven lampstands of the Temple are fed with oil and the Precious Blood.

65. The seven lampstands of Mount Zion take their oil from the Mount of Olives and their Blood from the hill of Golgotha.

66. The Precious Blood is the triumph, shield, and banner of the angels.

67. The firstfruits of the Lamb delight only in His Blood.

68. The Book of Life is alive indeed, for within it courses the imperishable Blood of the Lamb.

69. No name written in the Blood of the Lamb can ever die.

70. The Precious Blood bears supernal illumination.

71. The Precious Blood is at once the river and the bridge.

72. The Precious Blood is abroad in the world, riding the Green Lion.

73. The eternal marriage is consummated at the feast where the Precious Blood fills the chalice.

74. The robes of the Arch-Prophet, High Priest, and Emperor are red, for they have been dyed in the Precious Blood.

75. To live is to exist through the Blood and in the Blood and with the Blood – and for the Blood.

76. The Christian is the one who has the Precious Blood of Jesus coursing through his veins.

77. The demons tremble and quake before the Precious Blood, for it is their utter ruin.

78. If anyone should wish to confound the demons, let him call upon the Blood of the Lamb in confidence and hope.

79. There is absolute safety in the Precious Blood of Christ.

80. There can be no peace without the Precious Blood.

81. There are seven steps to the Temple: red, black, white, red, white, black, and red. The red steps take their hue from the Precious Blood.

82. No one may stand on the seventh, scarlet step but the Lamb, the Great High Priest, the Master of the Holy of Holies.

83. No one could begin the ascent if the Lamb had not cast His Blood upon the lowest step.

84. Most souls can only aspire to the middle, red step. But this step possesses nobility beyond all telling.

85. Very few souls are called to the white step above the red. Indeed, no one can mount to the second white stair without one foot ever on the middle red one. But blessed are they who may ascend to that stair!

86. On the last and deathless day, we shall all be carried up to the white step. But our feet shall be red with the Blood of the Lamb, the dye of the middle step.

87. Sober inebriation, the delight of the saints, comes from drinking of the Precious Blood without cease.

88. The wicked drink the Precious Blood as bats, cursed creatures of night. The penitent drink the Precious Blood as hummingbirds, remaining in bliss before the fragrance of Christ’s wounds.

89. The blood of the martyrs is one with the Blood of the Lamb.

90. The whole of heaven and earth is watered by the Precious Blood. If that flow should fail at any second, an untold ruin would fill all things.

91. The Precious Blood hides under three veils: the black, the white, and the red.

92. The black veil is the water of cleansing.

93. The white veil is the oil of illumination.

94. The red veil is the wine of union.

95. The most perfect of these veils is the red, for it perfectly manifests the ineffable truth it conceals.

96. The black and white veils lie outside the red – but once they are removed, they can never be put back on.

97. Those who see the red veil now may hope to see it removed when the Book is opened and all have their names restored to them in the Precious Blood.

98. The Precious Blood is the red candle enkindled by the Uncreated Fire.

99. The Lamb bleeds on seven seals within the seven bloodstained pillars, and these become the seven supernal fountains.

100. When the Precious Blood is poured out, it becomes still as wine held in a chalice. The Dove broods over it, and with the Light of the Dove on the surface, the Bride can find her true face as in a mirror of crystal.

Novena to St. Benedict

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A print from The Holy Twins by Tomie dePaola, depicting SS Benedict and Scholastica. (Source)

I hope my readers will join me on a novena to the Patriarch of Western Monks, starting today (July 3rd) and ending on the Feast of St. Benedict, the 11th of July. Here is the prayer I will use, taken from EWTN’s website:

Glorious Saint Benedict, sublime model of virtue, pure vessel of God’s grace! Behold me humbly kneeling at your feet. I implore you in your loving kindness to pray for me before the throne of God. To you I have recourse in the dangers that daily surround me.
Shield me against my selfishness and my indifference to God and to my neighbor.
Inspire me to imitate you in all things. May your blessing be with me always, so that I may see and serve Christ in others and work for His kingdom. Graciously obtain for me from God those favors and graces which I need so much in the trials, miseries and afflictions of life. Your heart was always full of love, compassion and mercy toward those who were afflicted or troubled in any way. You never dismissed without consolation and assistance anyone who had recourse to you. I therefore invoke your powerful intercession, confident in the hope that you will hear my prayers and obtain for me the special grace and favor I earnestly implore.

{mention your petition}

Help me, great Saint Benedict, to live and die as a faithful child of God, to run in the sweetness of His loving will, and to attain the eternal happiness of heaven.

Amen.

Unfashionable Thoughts on the Proliferation of Bibles

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

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

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

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

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

An Observation

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

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

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This is a real thing. (Source)

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

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

The Problem

These trappings are all deeply insidious for several reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

The Decay of the Scriptural Aura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Return to the Family Bible

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

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

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

My First Year at Grad School in Twelve Musical Selections

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A still from Farinelli. This was the year I both became an 18th century scholar and discovered Castrato arias. (Source)

12. “Somebody That I Used to Know” only Vaporwave.

11. “Sumer is Icumen In,” from The Wicker Man (1973).

10. “Demons,” by Alex and “Sleep Games,” by Pye Corner Audio.

9. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake theme.

8. Psalm 129 from King’s College Choir, Cambridge.

7. The soundtrack from Le Roi Danse.

6. “Never Enough” from The Greatest Showman.

5. “Pur Ti Miro,” by Monteverdi.

4. The Little Match Girl Passion, by David Lang

3. The Farinelli soundtrack.

2. Michael Nyman’s “The Garden is Becoming a Robe Room,” “Prospero’s Magic,” and “Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds.”

1. Various Arias from Handel, especially Rinaldo‘s “Il Vostro Maggio” and “Lascia Ch’io Piangia” as well as most of “Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne.”