The Charism of Eccentricity

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The 18th century was a Golden Age of clerical satire – and clerical eccentricity – in England. (Source)

What a day of loons it has been. After discovering the narrative of that wandering bishop which I brought to my readers’ attention earlier this afternoon, I have since come across two wonderful articles about the venerable tradition of eccentricity in the Church of England. The first is over at the Church Times. The Rev. Fergus Butler-Gallie, a curate in Liverpool, has written a book entitled A Field Guide to the English Clergy (One World Press, 2018). In his article at the CT, Butler-Gallie provides a taste of what is assuredly a very fun book indeed. Take just one of the bizarre figures he profiles:

William Buckland, a Victorian Dean of Westminster, became obsessed with eating as many animals as possible, from porpoise and panther to mole fricassee and mice on toast, even managing to gobble up the mummified heart of King Louis XIV while being shown round the Archbishop of York’s stately home.

He was no fool, though. The first person ever to excavate an entire dinosaur skeleton (although he was more interested in other prehistoric remains, writing on a desk made out of dinosaur faeces), he once disproved a supposed miracle in France by being able to prove (by taste, of course) that a supposed saint’s blood was, in fact, bat urine.

Or consider this parson:

The Revd Thomas Patten was a real-life Dr Syn, helping to run a smuggling operation on the north-Kent coast. Patten would preach interminably boring sermons until a parishioner held up a lemon, a sign that someone had agreed to buy his drinks for the evening at the tavern opposite, at which point he managed to terminate the service with astonishing alacrity (a ruse, I’m sure, no clergy reading this would even consider replicating).

If the rest of the book is as fascinating at these anecdotes suggest, it will be a classic in no time – right up there with Loose Canon and The Mitred Earl. Apparently it’s been getting rave reviews. (I’ll add that if any of you are looking for a Christmas gift for your favorite Catholic blogger, it’s going for under £10 at Amazon).

Today I also came across an article about one of Butler-Gallie’s subjects, the Rev. R.S. Hawker, also known as the “Mermaid of Morwenstow.” Alas, as I am not a subscriber to The Spectator, I cannot read it. Those who can are encouraged to do so.

One of my favorite clerical eccentrics whom I doubt that Butler-Gallie covers is the Rev. William Alexander Ayton, vicar of Chacombe in Oxfordshire.  A Victorian Freemason of extraordinarily deep occult learning, he maintained a clandestine alchemical lab in his rectory basement and claimed to have made the Elixir of Life. However, this adventure ended in sadness. He only tried one quaff and, finding that it made his hair fall out, the sensible vicar sealed it away on a shelf. In his old age, he discovered that it had congealed and was quite unusable. He also translated the Latin life of Dr. John Dee. With an inveterate fear of Jesuits, his own bishop, and “the gnomes,” it’s no surprise that Yeats – his comrade in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – once called him “the most panic-stricken person” he had ever met.

Though of course there are few stories of clerical eccentricity as amusing as the infamous dinner related by Brian Fothergill in his life of Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry. Fothergill tells us that

On one occasion when a particularly rich living had fallen vacant he invited the fattest of his clergy and entertained them with a splendid dinner. As they rose heavily from the table he proposed that they should run a race and that the winner should have the living as his prize. Greed contending with consternation the fat clerics were sent panting and purple-faced on their way, but the Bishop had so planned it that the course took them across a stretch of boggy ground where they were all left floundering and gasping in the mud, quite incapable of continuing. None reached the winning-point. The living was bestowed elsewhere and the Bishop, though hardly his exhausted and humiliated guests, found the evening highly diverting. (The Mitred Earl, 27).

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Hervey also built what must have been one of the greatest gems of British Palladian architecture, Ballyscullion House. Alas, it is no longer extant, but has been reduced to a respectable if far less elaborate mansion. (Source) For a 3D model, see here.

If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that Anglicanism as lived in history is not a dry religion.

Allow me to indulge in a bit of crude cultural observation. It occurs to me that the national church of the English would inevitably partake of that quintessential English quality – eccentricity. Americans don’t produce real eccentrics. We breed individualists and, less commonly, outright weirdos. But the great British loon is mostly unknown to us. Eccentricity requires a certain localism, even an urban one, that has been mostly lost in the sprawling homelands of the American empire. Suburbs don’t produce eccentrics.

And more to the point, why should strangeness be so unwelcome in the Church? Why should the Church be bland and conformist and comfortable? Why must we labor on through the nauseatingly boring bureaucratic lingo and platitudinous sound-bites that so often seem to make up the bulk of our ecclesisatical discourse? Where is the sizzling fire cast to earth? Where is the light and heat of the Holy Ghost? In reviewing the proceedings of the recent Youth Synod, I was dismayed to find so little that genuinely spoke of the sacred. It so often seems that our Bishops are more interested in crafting a Church of the self-righteous liberal bourgeoisie than they are in the Church that Jesus left to His Apostles.

Eccentricity may not be a strategy, but it’s at least has the potential to become a reminder that the supernatural reality is completely other. As that Doctor of the Church, David Lynch, once said, “I look at the world and I see absurdity all around me. People do strange things constantly, to the point that, for the most part, we manage not to see it.” Well, God does far stranger things far more often than we do. Eccentrics – especially the Fools for Christ – can speak to that.

Butler-Gallie gets at this well in his article when he writes,

Church of England with more rigour and vigour might have its appeal, but the evangelising potential of the strange increasingly appears to be a casualty of the drive to be more, not less, like the world around us. An embracing of our strangeness, failings, and folly might free us to eschew conversion via tales of our usefulness — be that in pastoral wizardry, wounded healing, or nifty management speak — and, instead, “impress people with Christ himself”, as suggested by Ignatius of Antioch (who, though not an Anglican, did share his fate with the 1930s Rector of Stiffkey, both being eaten by a lion).

…Perhaps less strangeness is a good thing. It is certainly an easier, safer thing from the bureaucratic and behavioural point of view. I’m more inclined, however, to agree with J. S. Mill — hardly a friend of the Church of England — who suggested that “the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained. That so few dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.” Or, to put it another way, a Church that represses its strangeness is one that is not more at ease with itself and the world, but less.

I can only applaud this point. Ross Douthat said much the same in my own communion when, in response to the Met Gala last Spring, he suggested we “Make Catholicism Weird Again.” Or what Fr. Ignatius Harrison CO was getting at when he gave that wonderful sermon on St. Philip Neri’s downright oddity. And though Flannery O’Connor may never have actually said it, I can’t help but agree that “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you odd.” Indeed, my readers will know that I have hammered on about this point ad nauseum. Butler-Gallie’s writing encourages me to keep at it until we in the Christian West more widely recognize the charism of eccentricity.

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Prelates dancing to the Devil’s music. (Source)

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Advice from a French Nun

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A portrait of Mother Mectilde de Bar adoring the Blessed Sacrament. (Source)

Sometimes readers ask me about more information on Mother Mectilde de Bar (1614-1698), the saintly foundress of the Benedictine Nuns of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. I would of course direct those who read French or Italian to any of the several biographical studies about Mother Mectilde that have come out in those languages. However, I would perhaps more eagerly urge my readers to a series of recent posts at Vultus Christi presenting what is, I believe, the first English translations of some of Mother Mectilde’s spiritual letters. Here they are with the titles the translator has given them at VC.

I. “So that I might begin to live in simplicity, like a child.”

II. “On the Meaning of Desolation and Sufferings.”

III. “The state in which you find yourself is of God.”

IV. “The divine labourer who works in you.”

V. “Yet ever thou art at my side.”

VI. “Nothingness doesn’t even attach itself to nothingness.”

VII. “Some sayings of Mother Mectilde.”

VIII. “He sets fire everywhere.”

IX. “All our discontent comes from self-will.”

And on top of all that, there’s a letter from the lay mystic Jean de Bernières to Mother Mectilde. Bernières is a good example of someone who, though posthumously condemned as a “Quietist,” is now being recovered as a source of valuable mystical insight. We have seen the same happen to Benet Canfield before, and it may yet occur to someone like Pietro Matteo Petrucci. More work needs to be done in this area. At any rate, translation of these early modern mystical works is badly needed.

Both as a practicing Catholic and as an historian of early modern Catholicism, I am encouraged that these works are being put into English for the first time. The English-speaking world is now getting a much better sense of the importance of this unique tradition within the Benedictine family. More translations, we are told, are coming. I eagerly await their publication.

 

Elsewhere: Two Links on the Rosary

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May Our Lady of the Rosary pray for us. (Source)

Over on Twitter, I refer my readers to an incredible thread from Joshua Jennings, who has posted images from an antique book on the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary. The illustrations are delightful, the devotion is manifest, and the typology is sound. Do give it a look.

At Vultus Christi, there is an excellent meditation on the spiritual power of the Rosary. Here’s an excerpt:

The Rosary confounds complexity and decapitates spiritual pride. There is no problem or difficulty that cannot be solved or resolved by faithful persevering recourse to Mary’s Psalter. The Rosary is the gift of the Mother of God to the poor and the powerless, who alone are capable of hearing the Gospel in all its purity, and of responding to it with a generous heart. It is to such as these — the childlike and the weak, the poor and the trusting — that the Rosary is given. It is to such as these that the Rosary belongs.

Read the whole thing.

Three New Books for Early Modernists

There are some very exciting publications coming out soon…especially for those of us who study religion in the early modern period.

First, there’s a new series from CUA Press on Early Modern Catholic Sources, edited by Ulrich Lehner and Trent Pomplun. The first volume covers Christological debates among the Discalced Carmelites of the School of Salamanca. I think it’s a fair assumption that this material has never been translated before. The first volume should appear in 2019.

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Vol. I of Early Modern Catholic Sources (Source)

Second, and more germane to my own work, we have Jeffrey Burson’s very promising intervention into the perennial “Enlightenment” v. “Enlightenments” debate. His new book, Culture of Enlightening: Abbé Claude Yvon and the Entangled Emergence of the Enlightenment, is scheduled to be released from Notre Dame Press in May 2019. Burson has already established himself as a major scholar of the Catholic Enlightenment, and his newest foray promises to be his most ambitious work yet.

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Burson’s new book (Source)

For those of you who, like me, take an interest in the Jansenists and in early modern Catholic women, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a new study of Pascal’s sisters by Rev. John J. Conley, S.J. The Other Pascals: The Philosophy of Jacqueline Pascal, Gilberte Pascal Périer, and Marguerite Périer, another ND Press piece slated for an April 2019 release, will no doubt shed new light on these fascinating figures. Conley has done important work before on Catholic women in the 17th century – I look forward to his newest treatment of the subject.

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A Jesuit writes about Jansenists (Source)

And if you’re just looking for general book recommendations, might I refer you to Incudi Reddere? You’ll find much more there.

Elsewhere: Keanu Heydari on Conversion

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Fridolin Assists with the Holy Mass, Peter Fendi. (Source)

Earlier this month, my friend Keanu Heydari penned what is, I think, a very good essay about his own conversion and about conversion in general. I thought these two paragraphs were especially poignant:

If Jesus is the slain Lamb of God, the content of reconciliation is substantial rather than conceptual, or even primarily juridical. Forgiveness is freely given by God, but rather than bestowed, it is—like a substance—dealt with. It is held, beheld, and shared. I am speaking, of course, of understanding reconciliation as a sacramental event rather than as (primarily) juridical proclamation. The removal of our guilt is a free gift of the gracious God, yet it is not as a word, spoken in a booming voice. It is the material, densely textured experience of Jesus Christ, the Word, the Lamb of God, as he dies on Calvary, by the Church community, in the reception of the sacraments, wherein we receive God. The Psalmist implores, “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps. 34:8, RSV2CE). We taste and see, we behold, the forgiveness of God.

But pictures say more than words ever can. The Catholic artistic paradigm overflows with meaning. It is effusive, dynamic, and embodied. It is densely textured, thickly self-describing, multi-dimensional, and frankly excessive. But it is precisely in these Rabelaisian excesses that Catholic aesthetics gesture, even more powerfully, towards the ineffable, over and above the words themselves that are used in the liturgy. Sacramentally, we can truly say “Ecce homo.” Artistically, we are reminded that things are really happening outside of us, that we aren’t automata aimlessly generating profit for managers and selling our productivity to survive. We are more than the sum of our extrinsically imposed reductive component parts. The liturgy revels in its (in Cartesian terms) obscene uselessness. The defiance of the mass is its strongest selling point, as it were.

Read the whole thing. In what is proving to be an extraordinarily dark time for the Church, Keanu’s essay brings a good deal of hope in the fundamental promise of salvation.

Mozarabic Amens

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A Mozarabic illumination (Source)

In his Chapter Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict yesterday, the Prior of Silverstream referred to a Mozarabic Pater Noster, “a chant of striking beauty.” It is marked by a repetition of responsory Amens throughout, an ancient liturgical practice that Dom Mark explains in his post. Naturally, I was curious, and soon found a recording here. I thought my readers might enjoy it as much as I did. It is indeed full of a “striking beauty.”

The Voice of Arthur Machen

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The title illustration of Machen’s The Great God Pan and the Inmost Light (1896), famously rendered by Aubrey Beardsley (Source)

Arthur Machen (1863-1947) was one of the greatest horror writers in the English language. His particular brand of esoteric paganism, the dangers of the occult, the sinister truth lurking behind folktales, and a highly-developed knack for evoking eldritch terror – all of these elements exerted a profound influence on the development of weird literature. Those who enjoy Lovecraft will recognize much in Machen that later made its way into Lovecraft’s own corpus. The dark bard of Providence held Machen in high esteem.

Machen was also a deeply spiritual Christian, best but imperfectly classed as an Anglo-Catholic. His strong sense of the mystical life found its fullest expression not in his horror stories, which do indeed bear some mark of his sacramental worldview, but in his later writings. A Welshman, he was fascinated by the Grail legend and connected it with his idea of an ancient, vividly supernatural “Celtic” Christianity.

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Portrait of Arthur Machen (Source)

Machen is a favourite of mine. I cannot recommend his stories highly enough – especially The Great God Pan, “The Novel of the White Powder,” “The Shining Pyramid,” “The Ceremony,” and “The Lost Club.” He is far scarier than some of his better-known contemporaries such as M.R. James or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

He also figures prominently in some of my research. I recently came upon a recording of his voice from 1937, in which he speaks of Chesterton, Dickens, Thackeray, and the art of fiction more broadly. Some of my readers may find this as enjoyable as I do, and so I provide a link here.

A Belated Word of Thanks

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The Ven. Mary of Agreda, seen here preaching to the Indians by the miracle of bilocation. She was one among many who taught the Absolute Primacy of Christ. (Source)

I must thank Fr. Maximilian Mary Dean for republishing two of my pieces over at  Absolute Primacy of Christ: my introduction to the life and thought of Fr. Faber as well as my survey of art depicting the Subtle Doctor. It is a great honor to have been thought worthy of republication on a site I so greatly esteem. I have learned a lot from Fr. Maximilian’s blog and hope I might continue to do so! Go check it out.

The Best Monastic Documentaries

The monastic life is about as far as one can get from the flashy world of the entertainment industry. And yet, it has been the subject of some very good documentaries over the last fifteen years or so. For those curious about the various monks (and nuns) of the world, I thought I would provide a list of a few films with which to start.

Into Great Silence (2006)

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A Carthusian prays in his cell, from Into Great Silence (Source)

This stirring art film by Philip Gröning was produced over several years. Every shot is deeply meditative. We, the viewers, are drawn into a contemplative pose along with the monks themselves. As might be expected, there is very little dialogue – indeed, very little sound at all. We get a powerful sense of the holy silence that envelops the Carthusians of La Grande Chartreuse. Yet when the monks do speak, such as in an interview with an ancient, blind monk that comes towards the end of the film, the words mean something. The chant of the night office given prominent place in the film evokes all the centuries of virtually unchanged monastic life that have come down to us from St. Bruno. This film is hands down the most important and most spiritually insightful documentary about monasticism, and it has continued to exert a powerful influence on most such documentaries since.

Veilleurs dans la nuit (2011)

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A liturgy at Le Barroux (Source)

The monastery of Sainte Marie-Madeleine du Barroux, founded in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, preserves much of the great tradition of French Benedictine life. It is one of the very few monasteries on earth which has preserved the form of tonsure once known as “the monastic crown.” It is also famous for its grand and elegant celebration of the liturgy, as well as the great holiness of its founder, Dom Gérard Calvet. This French documentary does a good job depicting their life through a mix of commentary and interviews. It is of an entirely different style than Into Great Silence, but it relates more actual information about the monks themselves.

Quaerere Deum (2011)

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Some of the monks of Norcia with their famous beer (Source)

Filmmaker Peter Hayden of Wilderland Media has done some great and poetic work publicizing the various new monasteries founded in the old world by Americans. The first of these was the Monastero di San Benedetto in Norcia, established in 2000. It is only appropriate then that Hayden should have looked at them first. He produced a “day in the life” style documentary bearing clear influences from Into Great Silence. The slow pace, lack of commentary, and meditative minimalism all recall the best parts of that earlier work. Norcia itself – or what it was before the terrible earthquake of 2016 destroyed much of the town – emerges as a living community “seeking God.” A subdued sense of joy shines throughout.

Benedictine Monks, Ireland (2017)

 

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Br. John Baptist in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, Silverstream. Photo taken by the author.

Peter Hayden’s second work on the monastic renewal is a more obviously promotional piece of filmmaking than Quaerere Deum. A profile of Silverstream Priory, Benedictine Monks, Ireland depicts the community life of adoration and reparation led by the monks there. Scenes from Mass, chapter, and refectory alternate with candid shots of the monks at work and leisure. Interviews with the Prior and Subprior provide spiritual as well as historical context. As someone who knows the monks personally, I found it a pretty good exposition of their spirit. That peculiarly Benedictine sense of place is evoked through gentle Irish music at various points. And the combined wisdom of Dom Mark and Dom Benedict is a great grounding to the beautiful visuals. I was very taken with the image of Dom Cassian, then only a postulant, in prayer at the pillar and candle.

My only criticism is that, in spite of all these good features, the film fails to capture the overwhelming sense of the supernatural that hangs about Silverstream. I’m not sure if it was the darkness of the year during filming, or the slightly uneven cinematography, or the lack of scenic order that scuttled it for me.  Benedictine Monks, Ireland needs a heavier dose of the contemplative stillness that so strongly marks both Into Great Silence and Quaerere Deum. Still, it’s a nice introduction to the place for those curious about the Benedictine Monks of Perpetual Adoration.

Présence à Dieu (2015)

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Matins at Sept-Fons, from Présence à Dieu (Source)

This short film, first brought to my attention by Fr. Joseph Koczera SJ, does a good job showing what a traditional monastery can look like, even if it embraces the new Mass and the vernacular office. Notre Dame de Sept-Fons is currently the largest Trappist monastery in the world, at least in terms of membership – it is also manifestly young and diverse. The film shows why the Abbey keeps getting vocations. A near constant soundtrack of chant carries the viewer along. Présence à Dieu is also full of the Abbot’s exposition of the Rule, which is a nice plus.

God is the Bigger Elvis (2011)

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Mother Dolores Hart, wearing her trademark beret, from God is the Bigger Elvis (Source)

This one differs from the others in a few key respects. First, it’s an HBO production, rather than an Indie film. Secondly, it’s about nuns rather than monks. And third, there is a delicate sense of humor throughout that is a refreshing change from the other movies. It tells the story of Mother Dolores Hart, a starlet of the 1950’s who appeared in several features alongside Elvis before becoming a nun at the Benedictine monastery of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. She is now the prioress of the community. The documentary looks at her life and vocation as well as the daily ins and outs of the monastery. Not to be missed!

Life in Hidden Light (2016)

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A scene in the refectory from Life in Hidden Light (Source)

Monasticism is not confined to the Benedictine family. As Life in Hidden Light reminds us, the Carmelites also have a great tradition of contemplative monasticism. Clearly influenced by Into Great Silence, this film does a great job balancing meditative cinematography and interviews with the Discalced Carmelite sisters of Wolverhampton. One in particular that stands out is the old, mostly deaf nun who speaks about the “mess” of the world and the love of God. I was reminded of Into Great Silence‘s blind Carthusian (not to mention the slightly grotesque Jesuit in “The Enduring Chill,” by Flannery O’Connor). The old nun’s message is a sound, salutary one that we should all hearken to in this day and age.

There are probably other such films out there, but these are a few that might be a good starting place for those interested in the monastic life.

A Heathen Song in Time of War

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“Then the black snake coursed the meadow,/The red dragon rose unwombed,/While the storm wailed like a shadow/To eternal anguish doomed.” – Johannes Carsten Hauch (Source)

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.