As the world seems to be reeling towards another horrendous conflict, I am reminded of one of the greatest, most Dionysian pieces of recent anti-war art, Veljo Tormis’s Raua Needmine (Curse Upon Iron). Bleak as the Baltic, majestic as the dark woods of the north, and terrifying as Ragnarok itself, the 1972 piece from Estonia managed to capture the frenzied devastation of war. It is music best listened to with eyes firmly shut.
I have to thank Elliot Milco for soliciting, editing, and publishing a short review I wrote in the April 2018 edition of First Things. It is my first appearance in that great publication. I have the privilege of sharing the page with a few other really stellar pieces; among others, Mr. Joshua Kenz and Ms. Emily Sammon have written particularly outstanding reviews of very different books. My own work covers a recent Taschen publication that examines the William Blake illustrations of Dante. Go give it (and the book in question) a read!
Since multiple friends have told me how much they enjoyed the Ernest Dowson I posted earlier this week, I thought I’d furnish them (and all of you, dear readers) with a remarkable Decadent poem by Lionel Johnson which I have recommended as follow-up reading. It strikes a rather different spiritual vein. If Dowson’s spiritual theme is the retreat into silence and ascesis in the face of the world’s vanity, Johnson’s is the lure of temptation. Like Dowson, Johnson was a Catholic convert.
DARK Angel, with thine aching lust
To rid the world of penitence:
Malicious Angel, who still dost
My soul such subtile violence!
Because of thee, no thought, no thing,
Abides for me undesecrate:
Dark Angel, ever on the wing,
Who never reachest me too late!
When music sounds, then changest thou
Its silvery to a sultry fire:
Nor will thine envious heart allow
Delight untortured by desire.
Through thee, the gracious Muses turn,
To Furies, O mine Enemy!
And all the things of beauty burn
With flames of evil ecstasy.
Because of thee, the land of dreams
Becomes a gathering place of fears:
Until tormented slumber seems
One vehemence of useless tears.
When sunlight glows upon the flowers,
Or ripples down the dancing sea:
Thou, with thy troop of passionate powers,
Beleaguerest, bewilderest, me.
Within the breath of autumn woods,
Within the winter silences:
Thy venomous spirit stirs and broods,
O Master of impieties!
The ardour of red flame is thine,
And thine the steely soul of ice:
Thou poisonest the fair design
Of nature, with unfair device.
Apples of ashes, golden bright;
Waters of bitterness, how sweet!
O banquet of a foul delight,
Prepared by thee, dark Paraclete!
Thou art the whisper in the gloom,
The hinting tone, the haunting laugh:
Thou art the adorner of my tomb,
The minstrel of mine epitaph.
I fight thee, in the Holy Name!
Yet, what thou dost, is what God saith:
Tempter! should I escape thy flame,
Thou wilt have helped my soul from Death:
The second Death, that never dies,
That cannot die, when time is dead:
Live Death, wherein the lost soul cries,
Dark Angel, with thine aching lust!
Of two defeats, of two despairs:
Less dread, a change to drifting dust,
Than thine eternity of cares.
Do what thou wilt, thou shalt not so,
Dark Angel! triumph over me:
Lonely, unto the Lone I go;
Divine, to the Divinity.
Here are XVII things for which I am grateful in the year of Our Lord MMXVII.
2. All of the friends I have left behind in Virginia, and all of the friends I have made at Oxford—from 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.
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!
While there are still a few minutes left in this feast, let me share with you the perfect music for the day, David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion. It is a staggeringly beautiful and tragic piece of music based upon the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Little Match Girl. It also won its composer the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and a Grammy in 2010. I encourage you to listen to it in a meditative spirit – slowly, carefully, with the whole soul attentive. You will be richly rewarded.
Recently two very worthy endeavors have come to my attention. The first is the blog of the Stigmatics Project at the Ruusbroec Institute, University of Antwerp. The project “studies the promotion and devotion of the hundreds of stigmatics reported in five European countries during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.” It takes a scholarly, non-confessional approach to its subject. No doubt this new venture will yield greater insights into the stigmata as a social phenomenon.
The second is a much more theological blog called Littlest Souls, and it presents a veritable treasure trove of mystic spirituality. The blogger has clearly read widely in the library of the soul passed on to us from age to age by the Church. He seems to place a special emphasis on the 19th and early 20th century mystics, much like the Stigmatics Project. In fact, they probably cover some of the same figures. But unlike the recently-founded work of the Ruusbroec Institute, Littlest Souls has been up and running since May 2012. There is consequently much more material here to review and contemplate. Fans of that other great blog, Mystics of the Church, will find much here to admire.
In my first post on Father Faber, I noted that he represented a kind of lost world of the faith. Today, it is hard to imagine a Catholicism that once supported the kind of imaginatively baroque and overtly sentimental spirituality that oozes from his pages. Father Faber looks odd to our cynical, postmodern eyes. But in exploring his writings now, I find much in them that’s salutary and beautiful. My hope is that I can play some small part in recovering those gems for our times.
Both of these blogs seem to do precisely that; one at the level of scholarship, and one at the level of spirituality. Both set out to investigate and present a spiritual school that often seems morbid, unhealthy, or slightly daft – certainly one that has little place in our age. But there are real values here, real impressions of humanity in communion with the divine. I can only commend their efforts as important contributions to the memory and mystical life of the Church Militant.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The Church is weird because she is supernatural, and the supernatural is always strange. We should embrace that fact.
Readers of this blog will not be surprised that I am recommending something on Vultus Christi. I have done so before, and will no doubt do so again. Today, I’d like to direct your attention to Dom Mark’s excellent letter to his oblates on the use and abuse of the Internet. Even though certain principles may not apply to those who are not under the Benedictine rule (what, meaningfully, does “enclosure” mean for a graduate student?), on the whole, it is a sound and salutary document. It is also deeply convicting. I hope it is read by the entire Catholic blogosphere. I also hope I can live by its spirit. A few perçantes passages:
No longer is it necessary to embark on a journey outside the monastery to see or hear things giving rise to manifold evils. Even blogs and discussion groups that label themselves “Catholic” or “Traditional” can become the occasion of sins against charity, truth, and justice.
Or this recommendation:
What sort of things drive a person to undiscipled or excessive use of the internet? One person may be driven to the computer by loneliness, another by boredom, and still others by a kind of low–grade depression. One must be uncompromisingly honest in identifying the things that drive one to an inordinate use of the internet. I recommend, then, that oblates regulate their use of the internet by adopting a discipline analogous to the Great Night Silence of the Holy Rule.
Or this commonplace but nevertheless true observation:
Anyone who has participated in online exchanges, discussions, and debates knows that “therefrom may arise the most grievous occasion of scandals”. Saint Benedict uses the word “scandals” here in its biblical sense: a scandal is something that causes another to stumble or even to fall. The so–called “comment boxes” on blogs are often rife with murmuring, criticisms, rumours, and pernicious intimations. The internet and social media can become a deadly weapon at the fingertips of people in the grip of unforgiveness, bitterness, old hurts, and hatred. Computers allow people to strike their brethren, not with the clenched fist, but with fingers flying over the keyboard. Even comments written innocently can be misconstrued, fomenting enmity and division.
Read the whole thing. It’s not too long, and may open up new ideas on how better to guard your soul online.
Since I am currently gnawing my way through the historiography of Late Antiquity, I thought I’d take a quick break to refer you to what I’m sure will be a commendable and highly useful project. Our friends over at The Josias have started a podcast, which will no doubt be a fine resource for anyone wishing to understand a) Catholic Integralism, or b) Neo-Thomistic political theories more generally. Their first episode is chiefly on the Common Good. Give it a listen here.
Emmy Award-winning wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson takes viewers on an authored odyssey along Ireland’s rugged Atlantic coast – the place he chooses to make his home after 30 years spent shooting some of the world’s most celebrated wildlife films.
The show goes far beyond what we’re used to in the usual nature documentaries. Stafford-Johnson’s skill with the camera is peerless. Many of his shots are photographic gems in their own right. His birds are a particular delight to watch. He captures them as they move in stillness—Kestrel, Eagle, Swan. Brought together with beautiful music and sensitive narration over the course of two hours, the gorgeous shots elevate each other to the level of true documentary art.
Stafford-Johnson couldn’t be more different than, say, David Attenborough—distant, officious, illustrative, objective, professorial. In a word, British.
Instead, he has given us a distinctly Irish documentary. Every scene is infused with an Irish sensibility. Gone is the slightly stuffy, very British narration conveying little more than scientific data about the life cycle and behavior of various animals; gone the humanitarian appeals for conservation or legislative action on climate change; gone, too, the very American emphasis on spectacle and action. While there’s some information about the creatures that inhabit the west coast of Ireland and the threats they face, it comes across in a very different way. British and American nature shows are prose, and sometimes clunky, technical prose at that. Ireland’s Wild Coast is pure poetry. Or even—dare I say it—a prayer.
At every turn, we can sense Stafford-Johnson’s affection for and intimacy with his subject. For example, Stafford-Johnson rather touchingly says that a stag in rut “has only one thing on his mind: fatherhood.” He admires the tenacity of the humble lamprey; “Any creature that has been around for that long has got life sorted.” He has a wonderful tendency to humanize the animals he films. Surrounded by humpback whales at rest after feeding, he says, “I like to think that other animals can be happy.” In some sense, that’s the whole point of Ireland’s Wild Coast. To show us the joy of the natural world, and help us rekindle our wonder in it.
Likewise, Stafford-Johnson’s environmental concerns are usually framed by a winsome sense of home. These animals are Ireland; they belong to the land and sea; they form an integral part of his home, and must be preserved as such. The Irish sense of place, an obsession that has formed the country’s art, literature, and politics for centuries, colors Stafford-Johnson’s narration in more ways than one. For this film is not just a nature documentary. At the Skelligs, at Great Blasket, at Corcomroe, and in his traditional rowboat, Stafford-Johnson reflects on the Irish people in their history and culture. He wistfully wonders what kind of life the men who built the beehive huts of Skellig Michael might have led. He contemplates the dissolution of the monasteries. And he tells us a few old Irish legends along the way.
The viewer is led to contemplate nature and history through a poetic lens. We become fellow-travelers with Stafford-Johnson as he winds his way up the West Coast on a watery pilgrimage. Any student of Sophiology will recognize in Ireland’s Wild Coast a perfect example of truly Sophianic art. As Michael Martin writes at the beginning of his essential text, The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Return to a Poetic Metaphysics:
For sophiology, especially as articulated from the 17th century onward, asks us to attend to the grace of God, his presence, in Creation: a presence which, despite the world’s fallenness, can only be described (in the words of Genesis) as “good.” (3)
That’s precisely the message that Stafford-Johnson most powerfully communicates. Not that the earth is in danger; not that wild animals live interesting and impressive lives; not even that Ireland has a unique and valuable ecosystem on its west coast. Nothing so pragmatic as that. Rather, we are left with the powerful sense of the goodness of creation. We are led to delight in it.
In watching the film—in rewatching it—in writing this piece—I am reminded not only of the lessons of latter-day sophiologists, but of that sophiologist malgré lui, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Specifically, the words of his great sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.”
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
No words so perfectly describe the Kestrel of Corcomroe as it hovers, hesitates, and then glides down with Pentecostal grace upon its unsuspecting prey.
Anglo-Catholic readers will no doubt have mourned the demise of Conner McNeill’s Merrily on High, what was once among the best and most prolific AC blogs on the web. Never fear! Connor McNeill rides again. He’s back with a new blog called Mary’s Dowry. It looks as tasteful, reverent, and aesthetically sophisticated as the project that preceded it.
Mr. McNeill has decided to depart from the Church of England and join the Roman Communion. As he had been pursuing ordination with the C of E, this conversion is no small undertaking. Pray for him! And check out Mary’s Dowry while you’re at it.