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.”
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.
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.
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 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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.