On Faith and the Priesthood of Christ

And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen. – Luke 24: 50-53

Many years ago, shortly after the start of my faith journey, I received some very good advice from an Anglican friend of mine. Or rather, I received a very good prayer. She told me that whenever she was anxious or worried or stressed about anything, she resorted to a prayer that ran like this:

“Jesus Christ is my High Priest, and He will always see me through.”

There is much consolation in these simple words, as I have had frequent occasion to learn in the years since then. And, to be honest, I am most drawn to Christ in the mystery of His High Priesthood. I often find myself asking Him to pray for me, not in the sense that one asks a friend or a saint to pray, but as one can only ask a sovereign and perfect intercessor. This sense of Christ as High Priest has become part of the basic structure of my own faith. Yet today’s feast, the Ascension of Our Lord into Heaven, invites us all to dwell upon this mystery in a more explicit way.

The Ascension from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry ©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda (Source)

It is a curious fact of the Church’s kalendar that in those solemnities when she most fervently celebrates the Incarnation, she also insists most firmly upon the hiddenness of God. In Christmas, we observe Christ born in a lowly shed at night, disclosing His presence only to those shepherds who resemble Him in their poverty, humility, and obscurity. Today’s feast of the Ascension is composed of a similar doubling. It brings before our eyes the Incarnation in its most radical implications—while reminding us that we live in and with Christ’s apparent absence.

It is, therefore, a salutary lesson in the virtue of Faith. I think that we too often lose sight of what Faith really is. Scripture tells us: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1 KJV). But what does this really mean?

God’s absence is felt in two ways. First, we feel it through the insistent reality of evil. The agony of the world we live in is too great, too universal, and too obvious to need any underlining. The Church is no different. How many malicious and mediocre priests seem to cloud the pure light of the Gospel! Their sin weighs more heavily, for they have been given a greater charge. Yet there is some comfort in the High Priesthood of Christ. If our earthly priests falter and fail, Christ never will. He remains forever a spotless offering in the sight of the Father, and His blood is all-cleansing. The invisible pontiff of an invisible, all-embracing, and everlasting temple, Christ never abandons His children, who linger below with expectant eyes.

Let us pass on to the second sense in which God hides Himself, leaving us with, in the words of R.S. Thomas,

this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply.

R.S. Thomas, “The Absence”

The past is forever dead to us, an enormous absence, a distantly glimmering mirage that fades even as we approach it. Sacred History, even supported by texts and archaeology, is not a special case. There is a sense in which the facts of the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ are no different here. We may participate in them, but we cannot directly experience them as historical events, in historical time.

The great High Priest in Heaven. (Source)

So, what are we to do? How do we deal with the fact that God’s acts of revelation lie hidden behind the curtain of time? Quite simply, we must have faith. We must declare that faith is not certainty and not knowledge, but an engraced movement to trust those little lights given unto us. Those lights are, mainly, Scripture and Tradition, particularly the Liturgy, in which the Church as a body transcends the limits of earthly time through her collective remembrance. There is a tendency in Catholicism to downplay the “memorial” function of liturgy. This is a mistake. In fact, there is a sense in which the essence of the Liturgy (or rather, the Liturgies of the various Catholic Churches) is memory. But it is the memory of the Church as the very Body of Christ, a memory which realizes and re-presents the object of remembrance, not mere empty symbolism. Orthodox theologians have been better on this point than Western ones, perhaps because they have not been so fearful of the specter of Zwingli. But I digress.

All of this is to say that we cannot state with the certainty of historical science whether Sacred History is true. There is no real evidence for most of revelation, and we should not let the apologists delude us on this point. They’re far more addled by modernity than they realize. But by grace we can and should leap boldly across the chasm of our natural uncertainty, avoiding the Scylla of Apologetic Positivism and the Charybdis of Naturalistic Doubt. The result is not knowledge, which has no meaning here, but faith.

We would all be better off in a position of greater epistemological humility. For instance—let’s be honest—we have absolutely no knowledge of what happens after death. The data is inconclusive: annihilation, a flash of light, reincarnation, hauntings, purgatory, heaven and hell. We know nothing. It may seem like a commonplace, but it bears repeating, that our fate after death is a mystery. All we can do is have faith that what we have been promised is true. But none of this is certainty, not even for our own salvation. Do you know you will be saved? No. For no one can know what comes after death. Eternal hellfire or an infinity of mute blackness or a strange new human life could come instead. The only thing to do is to pray for mercy “in fear and trembling,” placing our faith in the Hidden God (Philip. 2:12).

Rebecca Dulcibella Orpen, The Risen Christ (The Ascension), National Trust, Baddesley Clinton (Source)

Do not say to me that you “know” these things because you “know” your Bible or because you “know” Church teaching or even because you “know” Jesus. To be frank, I don’t believe it. In fact, I’m not confident we can know God at all, in the sense of positive knowledge. God’s existence is not like a mathematical theorem or the date of the Battle of Waterloo. Nor do I think you can know God or any of His saving mysteries like you can know another person. You cannot see God; you cannot touch Him; you cannot hear Him like you can hear a friend or lover or even a stranger passing in the street. Simply put, I don’t believe that our “knowledge” of God, the Infinite and loving ground of Being, should be called “knowledge” at all. In fact, I rather suspect that this fixation with “knowledge” has been a very substantial problem for the Church throughout her history.

To interject a personal note; I look back at my life and I sometimes wonder if I ever really knew Christ. There are others I doubt as well. False mystics and visionaries abound, as the Church chokes on her own prelest. But when I look at my own case, I remain unsure. I certainly know a lot about the Church, and have ever since I eagerly began RCIA nearly ten years ago. But did I know Christ? Was I just enamored with my own exaltation, with the fool’s-gold assurances of spiritual certainty, with the glittering baubles that float like empty bottles down the Tiber? Is it even possible to know Him? Or must we just choose, by grace, to have faith—to place our confidence in Him, trusting that He will guide us through the overwhelming darkness of uncertainty which is the very tissue of our lives?

I have come around to the latter position. The virtue of Faith has nothing to do with knowledge per se, and is as far from certainty as East from West. It is granted to us precisely because we lack certain knowledge of the immense realities it comprehends, and probably must by our very nature. Eliot writes in “Burnt Norton” that “Human kind/cannot bear very much reality.” We forget our weakness too easily.

Jan Matejko, The Ascension of Christ, 1884 (Source)

Happily, the substance of our faith does not reside in the natural faculties of understanding. As Pascal says, “It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.” In a sense, the Ascension is the true beginning of the Christian faith in history, for it inaugurates our sensible separation from Christ. Our eyes grow dim, but not our hearts. The blindness of nature is transformed into sight by grace.

In Exodus, God tells Moses that “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.” (Ex. 33:20 KJV). The Ascension is the triumphant reversal of these words. For today, a man greater than Moses, a man greater than Enoch and greater than Elijah, but a man all the same, sees the Face of the Father. He has “ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.” Godhead wraps Himself in human nature, and humanity is plunged into the abyss of everlasting Light. A human being stands at the threshold of eternity. The Ascension brings humanity into the very Holy of Holies of the cosmos. We truly participate in this Ascension if we unite ourselves to Christ through the grace given us, especially the grace of the sacraments. If we one day enjoy the Blessed Vision of the Divine Essence, it will be through the eyes of our High Priest, our Head, the Lamb who is the Lamp of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:23). John Donne puts it thus:

Behold the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;
Nor doth he by ascending show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.

John Donne, “Ascension”

By grace, we shall follow these luminous steps, someday. So many saints have – including today’s great saint, Philip Neri, Apostle of Rome. Their stories remind us that now is the time of faith, and hope, and the charity that breathes life into both.   

If the Ascension is a lesson in Faith, it is just as much a lesson in Hope. It shows us which way we must go. It tells us that we must look to the hills, from whence cometh our help (Ps. 121:1). We need go neither backwards nor forwards, neither to the East nor to the West—but rather, up. Up, into the hidden mystery of the Divine Life. Our help is not from man but from the God-Man, the one who brought our very nature beyond the veil of the celestial temple. And what do the Apostles do? They imitate their Head and repair to the visible and earthly temple, there to sing and praise and preach the Gospel of the Lord. So have all the saints throughout the long, dark centuries since the Ascension. And so should we.  

But even as we tabernacle in the visible Church, we are truly cloistered in the heart of the Most High. As St. Paul writes to the Colossians,

If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:1-3

Let us pray with the Apostles that we might one day ascend with Christ. And let us ever hold in remembrance that Jesus Christ is our High Priest, and He will always see us through.

“A Vacuum He May Not Abhor”

RS Thomas Obituary

R.S. Thomas in a typical pose. One does wonder if he ever smiled. (Source)

R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), the Welsh nationalist, Anglican minister, and consummate poet belief and doubt has recently become a favorite. Here is a poem of his that, I think, is worth pondering in Lent.

The Absence

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism

of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

A Letter on Loneliness

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Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Veronese. Pinacoteca di Brera (Source)

My Dear Brother Josiah,

I received your last correspondence with a mixture of joy and sorrow. Joy, for all the good news you shared of our friends and familiars; sorrow, for those matters closer to your own heart that weigh so heavily upon your soul. Normally, I would not venture to offer unsolicited advice. However, as you have come to me seeking counsel, I will try to speak from what little light I have been granted. I will offer you, I hope, nothing but the constant teaching of the saints, nor anything I would not myself seek to follow. So much of what I must share is rooted in my own experience, the fruit of suffering not in all respects unlike your own.

You tell me that you worry about God’s blessing. You write that, in view of your griefs, you no longer trust that the Lord will bless you. This is a failure of Christian hope, but an understandable one. Faced with one reversal after another, it is easy to despair. I will point you first to the book of Job, a well from whose water I know you have already imbibed in more bitter times. What else could I tell you? The key practical thing is to recollect often those graces you have received. Savor them. Go over each, holding them close to your heart in memory. Make space in your week – better yet, your day – to ponder the grand and little mercies of God. I commend to you one of the very greatest pieces of wisdom I have received, that “a grace remembered is a grace renewed.” Continual recollection means that we are never really bereft of those graces once delivered unto us.

Look over your current state of life. The world, at least, sees your success. Many would desire your place. Thank God for what He has seen fit to give you so far.

But I know how incomparably small all of those worldly triumphs seem next to the losses you’ve suffered. I see what you mean when you say that you don’t trust God to bless you anymore. You aren’t speaking of those tangible blessings the world prizes in its vanity. You speak instead of the love of those taken from you. That golden blessing is worth all the others combined.

And so, we come to what seems to me to be the basic problem; not despair, but loneliness. The chill that stains even the brightest happiness and reveals the joys of this world to be fool’s gold. Have you considered loneliness in itself? Perhaps you have. It is a dark and loathsome thing. Perhaps you have found it buried down in your soul. A void. A hole that, like a carious tooth, aches and aches until it cries out for your full attention. A little black space at the bottom of things. You carry it around with you and never set it down. Grief carved it out, shaped it to its own image, and colors it even today.

I don’t know if you will always bear that burden. Some of us must. But I would encourage you to embrace it. That emptiness is, in the words of R.S. Thomas, “a vacuum he may not abhor.” Come close to the void. Peer at it. Ecce lignum crucis! It is the cross you have been given. Fasten your heart to its center with the very nails of Our Lord’s passion. Accept His invitation, and you will be able to endure those long and painful hours when hope fails. One day, when you are least expecting it, something may very well happen. You may be at prayer in your room. You may be savoring the Eucharist at Mass. You may be finishing the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. But suddenly, unbidden, the Holy Ghost will visit you. The darkness will turn to dazzling light. By some strange alchemy known only in heaven, the emptiness will all at once turn into a full fountain of molten gold. The cavern will become a cup that runneth over. The silence will become song beyond sound or human voice. And your heart will be seized by the beautiful and terrifying realization that the Living God sees you. If only for a moment, you will know what it is to be “alone with the Alone.” Then will your heart become one with His. Then will you know a communion that obliterates all loneliness and a joy that erases all grief.

This moment cannot be rushed. God will not come but in His own way and in His own time. All the same, one can prepare.

First and foremost, take your loneliness and grief to the sacraments. When you are at the offertory or some other convenient point at the Mass, give your heart to the Eucharistic Christ. Ask to be alone with Him in the Tabernacle. Cleave to it as to the one rock of safety in a stormy sea. Consider, too, how Our Lord suffers loneliness in the Tabernacle. Think how He is neglected in His tabernacles through all the world. Think how He desires your consolation – yours! Truly, He wishes to make that emptiness in your soul His true and everlasting Tabernacle. Will you deny your Lord? For in the Tabernacle, He is at once most suffering and most glorious. So, too, where you are most suffering, He will render you most glorious.

Second, make a point of consciously drawing near to Christ crucified in your daily prayer. One thing I’ve done in the past – though, I confess, I have lately been lax about it – is to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet and dedicate each decade to one of the Holy Wounds. Start by contemplating Our Lord’s feet, His physical presence on Earth during His lifetime and evermore in the Eucharist. Consider His comings and goings, and how He willingly ceases all of that to offer Himself to the Father on the cross. Then consider His left hand, the Kingly hand that holds the orb of the world. Ponder the ways of His Providence. Take heart in His mercy towards the penitent and His just judgment of the wicked. Praise Him for His true and final victory over the forces of evil, for scattering the proud in their conceit. Then, move to His right hand, the Priestly hand of blessing. Think of how He has transformed all things by the peace wrought with His right hand, under the sign of His blessing. Look forward to the world as it shall be on the day of His Wisdom’s Triumph. It is a world we can already enter at the Mass. Bring your gaze up to the Holy Face, wounded by the crown of thorns. Offer him your anxieties, your fears for the future, and all those worries that come from not knowing what you must do or why some calamity has transpired. Consider the crown of thorns as the mortification of your very reason. As Our Lord unquestioningly accepted the will of His Father, may you do the same. But remember to gaze into the Holy Face as into the very countenance of the Living God. Ponder Jesus Christ in His humanity. God is a person; nor is he just any person, but a person who suffered all that we suffer, and more. Finally, move to the wound in the Holy Side and the Sacred Heart. Give yourself up to as pure an expression of love for your Savior as you can muster. Consider the flood of water and blood that fell from those triumphant gates, so rudely torn open. Think, if you can, of the power so much as one drop of either precious liquid would have to redeem not just one soul, but millions and millions of universes teeming with the souls of the very worst sinners. Ponder what it means that you may receive the Precious Blood at even a low Mass. Fix your gaze beyond the Holy Side, passing into the darkness of Our Lord’s chest. Dwell upon the Sacred Hear in its quiet and eternal radiance. Know that Our Lord’s chest cavity is so very much like the void to which I have already alluded, and so like the Tabernacle. For in both, we find the Heart of God! Imagine yourself receiving the Sacred Heart in the Eucharist. Meditate upon the immense fire of Love pulsing there until the last shudder of death – and, as you come to the Trisagion, recall how that love blazed forth again on Easter Morn, never to be extinguished.

Third, keep in mind the words of St. Philip Neri. Amare Nesciri – “Love to be unknown.” One thinks of St. Benedict. In his rule, St. Benedict enjoins his children to overcome the temptations of lust with a similarly simple phrase, “Love chastity” (RB IV). St. Philip’s words carry many meanings. They are a wonderful program of humility, of perfection, of freedom, but also of loneliness and grief. Love to be unknown. Find God in the moment when no one else notices you. Don’t do what you do to be recognized, as the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 6:3, 16, Luke 18:9-14). Be content that God sees and knows you. It will take time to grow into this practice, but you will come to recognize its benefit. You may someday find someone to share or alleviate the yoke of your sorrows – maybe even someone to love. But until then, embrace Solitude as St. Benedict would have us embrace Chastity; that is, as a beloved spouse. Focus on that task, the one you have been given for now, and the rest will come to you as God sees fit in His own time. I would wager that it will make you happier and help you love others more perfectly.

Fourth, do not depart from under Mary’s mantle. If you wish to see the very picture of loss, I will show you the woman who, though the only one free of sin among the whole human race, suffered the loss of her parents, her husband, and her son. Turn your eyes to Mary. The sorrows of her Immaculate Heart demand your attention. We have no greater advocate and comfort in our own suffering than Mary, in union with her eternal spouse, the Paraclete.

Finally – hardest of all – you must forgive. Jesus’s death was not just a perfect sacrifice because He was an innocent and willing victim. He forgave His murderers. If we are to have a share in that death, we must learn the extremely difficult discipline of forgiveness. It is the only way we can be truly free.

I would be remiss in giving you these counsels if I did not add with all due caution that, insofar as any of it applies to me, I often fail. But I feel no shame in saying so, since Our Lord is magnified in weakness. Don’t rely only on my words, narrow and feeble as they are. If anything I have said is contradicted by the example of the saints and the teaching of God’s holy Church, refer to their superior model. After all, I’m not a priest. I’m not even all that well versed in theology. Seek out a spiritual father who can help your soul more intimately than a friend can.

For all that, be assured of my prayers and affection. I hope you find the hope that can only come from the Lord, my dear brother. May He bless you and keep you, and make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; may He turn His countenance upon you, and give you peace.

In Christ,

RTY

A Note of Gratitude at Year’s End

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Happy New Year! (Source)

Here are XVII things for which I am grateful in the year of Our Lord MMXVII.

1. Graduating from the University of Virginia and starting the next phase of my academic career at the University of Oxford, as well as everyone who has helped me along the way.

2. All of the friends I have left behind in Virginia, and all of the friends I have made at Oxfordfrom Staggers, my Ecclesiastical History cohort, and the Companions of Malta. Also my wonderful family who have been there for me throughout the transition.

3. Everyone who has taken the time and effort to read, share, and respond to what I have written at this blog. As of this writing, I’ve gotten 44,127 views.

4. All of the support I received when my grandmother died right before Holy Week.

5. The fact that I have several friends who have started the process of entering or returning to the Church.

6. David Lynch, Paolo Sorrentino, Peter Morgan, and Noah Hawley.

7. Rekindling my love of creating art.

8. The new basset hound my family got this winter and the rabbits we received in the spring. Not to mention the continued good health of our other pets.

9. Gin and Tonics, Whiskey Sours, and St. Germaine.

10. All the museums I have worked in or visited.

11. Discovering the joys of sticky toffee pudding.

12. My Marian consecration. The continued friendship of many saints, including St. Philip Neri and the Blessed John Henry Newman. Also the many beautiful liturgies I had the chance to attend this year.

13. The memory of those warm and golden weeks on the Lawn between the end of Spring exams and the beginning of final exercises.

14. All of the great music I have come across this year (The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, David Lang, a few pieces by John Tavener and Zbgniew Preisner, George Jones and Monteverdi, Bernstein, Gilbert & Sullivan, Chrysta Bell, James Carr and Pokey LaFarge, Gaelynn Lea, Jackson C. Frank, and so much more).

15. A new appreciation for William Blake and an introduction to the poetry of R.S. Thomas.

16. The fact that we haven’t all been nuked to kingdom come yet.

17. The laughter I have happily shared with friends and family.

May the good Lord bless all of us in the coming year of His grace!

The Music of the Holy Ghost

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A still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983). Clips from Tarkovsky’s films are often incorporated into the Rev Army’s music videos. (Source)

Not long ago, I came across a new band. What a singular group it is. Their music crosses and confuses genres. They produce content at a far scarcer rate than other musical acts. Even their name, taken from a Buñuel film, sets them apart from most of the offerings one comes across today.

Little did I know that I had stumbled upon a cult gem. The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus has been on the scene for quite a while. Almost thirty years ago, they released their first album, The Gift of Tears (1987). Since then, they have only come out with sporadic releases, such as 1990’s Mirror and 2015’s Beauty Will Save the World. The long hiatus has well earned them the title of “One of music’s most elusive and enigmatic acts,” as we can read on their BandCamp site.

Tim Cooper has a great review of their work over at The Quietus:

…the attention-averse trio, who regard themselves as a creative collective rather than a band, make wildly eclectic music rooted in liturgical texts and ecclesiastical iconography, contrasting ethereal beauty with stark brutalism. Celestial choirs rub their cassocked shoulders with squalls of industrial noise, political speeches are interwoven with celluloid dialogue, instrumentation ranges from sombre neo-classical piano to pounding dance beats by way of folk, free-form jazz and experimental psychedelia.

They draw together a variety of spiritual and cultural influences: folk Catholicism, peasant mysticism, Russian Orthodoxy, the experience of post-Soviet Europe, Simone Weil, Welsh poetry. Their work can, I think, be described as sophianic, but it is a sophanicity carefully drawn through the harried cracks of the fallen world. The truth that the Rev Army grips and holds up to the light gleams all the more for being refracted in the shards of our earthly mirror.

Here are some favorite songs with their proper music videos, many of which are just as important for the meaning of the piece as the score itself.

Come Holy Spirit” – the very first Rev Army song I discovered. A bit too much flute and too many drums for me, but it was different enough from anything I had ever heard that it caught my attention.

Bright Field” – the first one that captivated me. The upward lift of the music combined with R.S. Thomas’s stirring paraphrase of the Gospel, not to mention Tarkovsky’s silken, dreamlike visuals, all together inspire something like wonder. Whenever I listen to it, I am reminded of a poem by Rilke.

After the End” – a simple and haunting French ditty set to the grainy images of villagers at prayer. They seem to be visionaries.

Psalm” – a few women chant in English against an increasingly dissonant shower of quasi-industrial background noise. The juxtaposition strikes me as an artistic model of transcendence through persistent prayer.

Repentance” – the most Flannery O’Connor thing you will ever see or hear. I’ll just leave it at that.

Théme de l’homme qui n’a pas cru en lui méme” – a Latin-flavored and occasionally jazzy piece featuring footage from a (staged?) Spanish Lenten procession. In case you hadn’t already noticed, the band is extremely Catholic.

Joy of the Cross” – another Lenten procession, but this time with a soft-edged folk music that makes me think of Fleet Foxes.

Before the Ending of the Day” – the Compline hymn surrounded and supported by an airy yet pulsing larger song. Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev provides the meditative visuals. Note that one of the commenters on YouTube wrote, “Please keep making more of these. This helped still my soul.”

Something epicletic moves through their music. But one can find that quality in lots of other work. What sets the Rev Army apart isn’t just their obsession with the Holy Ghost, nor their stylistic eclecticism. It’s their powerful sense of mystery. They never shy away from the divine darkness with which the Holy Ghost enshrouds His manifold works of grace. How refreshing, in an age of “Spirit of the Council” muzak and shallow “praise and worship,” to find music that is overtly Christian and even mystical without ever becoming preachy, dated, or emotivist. They treat their subject, the perennial and universal longing of the human heart for God, with a rare artistic and spiritual sophistication.

Caught up in marvel at the saving mystery of the Holy Ghost, the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus is the real Catholic charismatic revival.

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An icon of the Descent of the Holy Ghost. (Source)