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.

Springtime Sophiology from St. Nicodemus

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Gate on Addison’s Walk, Magdalen College, Oxford. Photo by author.

Now there are of course those who do not use the senses and the subsequent meditation on creation and Holy Scripture to rise through them to the knowledge and love of God, who both spoke the Scriptures and created the world. On the contrary, such people use this sense perception simply for human aggrandizement, for the marvel and mere pleasure of the corruptible beauty in creatures, and for other bodily purposes. Or, at least, they simply remain on the level of the limited purposes of the creatures and of the Scriptures. They thus neglect to proceed further, to rise to the catholic and comprehensive view of things, to God’s wisdom through which all things are known and in which all the reasons for each creature are to be found, according to St. Maximos. “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth…When he established the heavens, I was there” (Prv. 3:19, 27). St. Basil the Great too had something to say on this point: “There are indeed certain reasons why the primordial wisdom of God was laid as a foundation to nature at the time of creation.” Now, those who do not rise – through the reason endowed in nature and in the Holy Scriptures – to the hypostatic Logos of God, those who do not love Him “through whom all things were made” (Jn 1:3), as most of the worldly philosophers do not, all of these people act contrary to the Creator’s purpose in nature and in Holy Scripture. And according to the wise and most insightful Kallistos, the thought of such people has lost its natural tendency and has become unnatural. This has occurred because they use the means as ends in themselves, and the causes as results, and they love the gifts more than the Giver and the creatures more than the Creator, as St. Augustine has said. Since creation was not created for itself, but for the vision and glory of its Creator, it is not proper that it should be seen and admired for its own sake, but rather for the sake of its Creator. It is the same with the mirror which one does not look at for its own sake, but for the sake of the one reflected in it.

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St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (Source)

We may add, finally, that the secondary goal and purpose for the creation of the senses is so that the material body may be able to enjoy through them material nourishment, growth, and life. Truly, I do not know what to marvel at most: the “palace” that is so intricately constructed or the “king” who dwells therein. But of these two, I must certainly marvel most at the master artist and the Creator who with infinite wisdom not only created both of them, but also united the mind and body in such perfect harmony.

Quoted from Chapter One of A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel by Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, Trans. Peter A. Chamberas, Paulist Press, 1989, pages 73 and 74. 

“And the Light Shineth in Darkness; and the Darkness Comprehended It Not.”

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Cybele, the Magna Mater, on her triumphal car pulled by two lions. Has there ever been a more perfect likeness to the Whore of Babylon? (Source)

March 24th is the traditional Dies Sanguinis of the ancient Roman calendar, when the painted eunuch-priests of Cybele and the votaries of Attis in their Phrygian caps would join with the servants of warlike Bellona in the most vile public atrocities. On that day, hideous pipes stirred the wicked throng into a fever of unutterable terror, and as the revelers danced in an ever more demoniac fashion, they mutilated their flesh and let out copious torrents of blood upon the stones of forum and temple. Then they drank from their own spilled blood, descending even lower than the beasts in their frenzy and taking on instead the aspect of lustful aegypans. The summit of these evil ecstasies came when, before the altar of the Magna Mater, devotees castrated themselves. Only thus could they enter the service of that infernal priesthood.
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The Triumphal Entrance of Christ, mosaic, Palermo. (Source)

This was the culture that Christianity conquered. And it is with these satanic rites in mind that we look forward to a double feast of rather a different sort tomorrow. For tomorrow, on the 25th of March, we celebrate Palm Sunday and the Annunciation, falling providentially on the same day.

“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

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The Cestello Annunciation, Botticelli, 1489-90. My favorite of all Annunciations. (Source).

 

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

Terrible as An Army Set in Array

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Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us. (Source)

“Your deed of hope will never be forgotten by those who tell of the might of God. You are the highest honor of our race.”

Thus does the whole Church sing at Mass today, on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. And no mean words are they! The Psalm is drawn from the Book of Judith – a frequent verse for feasts of Our Lady – and it lands on our ears like a shout of proleptic joy in this season of preparation and penance. The liturgy draws two special comparisons between Mary and the women of the Old Testament: Mary as the new Eve, and Mary as the second Judith. Today’s feast draws its special energy, its exegetical verve, from the mystical connection between Mary and Judith.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe painted by the Trinity. An image worth meditating on. (Source)

The particular verse that the Church applies to Mary comes from Uzziah’s praise of Judith after she has already beheaded Holofernes the Assyrian. Let us turn briefly to the immediately preceding passage.

Then she took the head out of the bag, showed it to them, and said: “Here is the head of Holofernes, the ranking general of the Assyrian forces, and here is the canopy under which he lay in his drunkenness. The Lord struck him down by the hand of a female! Yet I swear by the Lord, who has protected me in the way I have walked, that it was my face that seduced Holofernes to his ruin, and that he did not defile me with sin or shame.” All the people were greatly astonished. They bowed down and worshiped God, saying with one accord, “Blessed are you, our God, who today have humiliated the enemies of your people.” (Judith 13:15-17).

Then come our Psalm verses.

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Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio, c. 1602. (Source)

Why would the Church draw our attention to this violent episode on a feast of Our Lady falling so soon after the Immaculate Conception? Haven’t we just contemplated her Sophianic existence? Haven’t we just basked in the light of the Holy Spirit resting upon her Immaculate Heart? Why must we leave those pleasant snow-caps of the spirit? Why turn instead to this grisly tale of murderous deliverance?

We must recall that, although Mary is all sweetness and concord to those who love her Son, she is the terror of demons. Her litanies and devotions include many titles that evoke the clamor of warfare: “Tower of David,” “Tower of Ivory,” even “Gate of Heaven.” She crushes the head of the Serpent. The sword that pierces her heart becomes, by the union of her suffering with that of her Son, a fearful weapon in her mighty hands.

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“Hail Mary, full of grace, punch the devil in the face.” (Source)

The story of Guadalupe is just one example of Our Lady exercising this power. Her appearance on Tepeyac, and the miracle wrought on the tilma of St. Juan Diego, was the beginning of the end of Aztec paganism. The demons that held that great people in thrall to the murderous rites of human sacrifice were totally vanquished. Like Judith, Mary rode out from Heaven into the  very camp of the enemy. Like Judith, she conquered. Like Judith, she proclaimed her victory with a visible sign – only, Our Lady’s sign was far more glorious. Judith held up the head of the vanquished foe, the bloody remains of a wicked oppressor. The Mother of God gave us her own image, miraculously imprinted into the convert’s cloak.

Judith delivered the Jews from the army of the Assyrians. Mary came forth to Tepeyac to convert the Mexican people, lifting from them the demonic yoke of a bloodthirsty paganism. What a glorious victory she won! Nine million Aztecs converted within the first ten years of the apparitions. Even today, she continues to spur us to conquer those terrible forces of injustice that oppress so many of God’s people. The collect prayer for today’s feast reads:

O God, Father of mercies, who placed your people under the singular protection of your Son’s most holy Mother, grant that all who invoke the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe, may seek with ever more lively faith the progress of peoples in the ways of justice and of peace. (Source; emphasis mine)

These days it is rather in vogue to lament a certain kind of triumphalism that is built on self-centered pride. But too often we forget that there is another triumphalism, the shout of a people who have seen their salvation coming from the Lord:

Blessed are you, daughter, by the Most High God,
above all the women on earth;
and blessed be the LORD God,
the creator of heaven and earth
(Judith 13:18).

The Church herself enjoins us to celebrate the works and ways of God through His chosen instruments. And in today’s Mass, we are called to join that praise to the sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe, Victrix over All Heresies and Demons. (Source)

In considering Our Lady of Guadalupe and the zeal with which she overcame the forces of evil and in contemplating the beauty of her miraculous portrait, a verse of Scripture comes to mind.

“Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array?” (Cant. 6:10 DRA)

We who have seen the tilma through the eyes of faith know the answer.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mystical Rose. (Source)

A Century of Marian Metaphors

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Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us. (Source)

1. Mary’s heart is the prism which catches the ineffable light of the Godhead and scatters it out as all the many graces of the world.

2. Mary is the pure candle holding aloft the undying flame of the Holy Spirit – the light and heat are Christ in his humanity and divinity, come to quicken the dead earth.

3. Mary’s heart is the spotless flower from which we, like so many bees, draw forth the fragrant nectar of Christ to make sweet honey for our God and King.

4. Mary’s heart is the fresh spring of grace that flows until it has become the mighty river of all the baptismal waters through history.

5. One word spoken by Mary is more ravishing to the angels and saints than the music of our worship, the hymns of the dead in purgatory, or even that sweetest sound, the prayer of a single penitent sinner.

6. Mary’s heart is the jeweled cask that hides a treasure inexhaustible.

7. Mary is the ever-new wineskin, and she always receives the new wine of God’s undying graces.

8. As the Ark rested beneath the watchful gaze of the two angels, so Mary is attended by her two angelic forebears, Enoch and Elijah.

9. Mary’s Immaculate Heart is the pillar of fire; the breath of her Fiat is the pillar of cloud.

10. Mary is the crown of the priest and king, his finest ornament and glory as he stands at prayer for us in the Holy of Holies.

11. Mary is the priestly breastplate, the glory of the House of Israel, the bearer of the Urim and Thummim of Christ’s two natures, guardian of the heart of the High Priest.

12. Mary is the Golden Vestment of Adoring Sacrifice and the Linen Vestment of Atoning Sacrifice.

13. Mary is the triumphant sister of Jael and Judith.

14. Mary is the undying hearth in winter, and she who tends the hearth.

15. Mary is the strong tree of shelter for us and the wood of the cross for her son.

16. Mary is the threefold seat of wisdom.

17. Mary is the ring of Solomon the King, that all the demons fear and tremble before.

18. Mary is the blueprint of Heaven and its surest map.

19. Mary is the granary of Heaven, opened for us in the time of our souls’ great famine.

20. Mary is the Pelican, piously feeding her children with the fruit of her own Immaculate Heart.

21.Mary is the cup of the everlasting nuptials.

22. Mary is the abyss of all Light, and the Light is Christ.

23. Mary is the white fire; her spouse is the black fire; together, they bring forth the Word.

24. Mary is the perfect circle of the nimbus around Christ’s head.

25. Mary is Eden-Garden.

26. Mary is Bethel of Jacob.

27. Mary is Eretz Yisrael.

28. Mary is Mt. Sinai.

29. Mary is Mt. Zion.

30. Mary is Jordan-Bank.

31. Mary is Mt. Tabor.

32. Mary is Golgotha.

33. Mary is the Cenacle.

34. Mary is the Tree of Life, the fruit of which we are given to eat, now and always.

35. Mary is the Tree of Life, on which the world of the spirit turns.

36. Mary is the Tree of Life, perfectly united to Christ in His sacrifice.

37. Mary is the visible whirlwind from which God speaks to the Righteous man suffering; her spouse is the invisible whirlwind, from which the wind derives its likeness.

38. Mary is the wing of the Seraphim lifted into flight by that ghostly wind.

39. Mary is the flowering earth under the footprint of Christ, her son.

40. Mary is the willow who weeps with an inconsolable grief.

41. Mary is the first high cliff that meets the light of the rising Sun.

42. The heart of Mary is as a treasure hidden in a placid blue sea.

43. Mary is the haven of white sands.

44. In Mary, lava cascades into the sea and builds a new land.

45. Mary’s heart is the molten forge of the King’s great weapons.

46. Mary’s heart is the gift of roses and lilies upon the altar.

47. Mary’s heart is the mirror of heaven.

48. Mary’s heart is the root of a golden fruit, the sacred heart of her son.

49. Mary’s heart is the privileged parchment on which the Holy Ghost composes the chant of every Angelic choir.

50. Mary’s heart is God’s library, wherein He may read and recount His own great deeds in all of human history.

51. Mary’s heart is the throne of the cosmic King.

52. Mary is the unstained looking-glass through which we see Christ clearly.

53. Mary is the altar.

54. Mary is the Tabernacle

55. Mary is the Lampstand.

56. Mary is the Holy of Holies.

57. Mary is the parted veil.

58. Mary is the lantern we carry that spreads the Uncreated Light before us on our path.

59. Mary is the Queen of all our darkest nights.

60. Mary is she who speaks the ineffable name of God, and lives.

61. Mary is the first and perfect Veronica, keeper of the Holy Face of Jesus.

62. Mary is the first and perfect Magdalene, anointing Christ with her unblemished humanity.

63. Mary is the first and perfect Martha, laboring always for Christ and His kingdom.

64. Mary is the first and perfect Lydia, following the Gospel wherever it leads.

65. Mary is the first and perfect Priscilla, aid to all the successors of the Apostles.

66. Mary is the hidden Aleph at the start of God’s great book.

67. Mary is the firmament.

68. Mary is the firstborn of the Redeemed World according to the order of time.

69. Mary is the Golden Fountain of all graces.

70. Mary is the Garden and the Garden-Ground.

71. Mary’s heart is the thurible in the hands of the Great High Priest; her pure prayer goes up to the Father as so much fiery incense.

72. Mary’s heart is the Chalice that receives and holds the Most Precious Blood.

73. Mary’s heart is the gem at the center of God’s crown.

74. Mary’s heart is the virgin land where stands the banner of her son.

75. Mary is the ladder of the Angels.

76. Mary is the cloud that rises from the sea.

77. Mary is the one who chants the music we had forgotten.

78. Mary is the canopy of the undying marriage between Christ and His bride.

79. Mary is the neck of the Church.

80. Mary is the joy of all creatures.

81. Mary is the Star seen in the East.

82. Mary is the chariot of the dawn.

83. Mary is she who has surpassed Semele and Psyche.

84. Mary is she who shames Juno and Venus.

85. Mary is she who overcomes Minerva and Diana.

86. Mary is the unlooked-for gift.

87. Mary’s name is the shield of Michael.

88. Mary’s name is the lily of Gabriel.

89. Mary’s name is the staff of Raphael.

90. Mary’s name is the honey of the angels.

91. Mary is the black cloud bringing rain to the desert.

92. Mary is the gateway to the land of the living.

93. Mary is the orb of God’s blessing to the righteous.

93. Mary is the scepter of God’s wrath to the demons.

94. Mary is God’s royal seal upon His creation.

95. Mary is the quarry and mine of the Temple.

96. Mary is the font of new birth.

97. Mary is the Queen from whom all queens take their pattern.

98. Mary is the one enthroned in the heart of Jesus Christ, and His perfect likeness.

99. Mary is the sweet perfume of the holy through all the ages.

100. Mary is eternity’s memory.

A Corpus Christi Meditation

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Transustanziazione,” by Giovanni Gasparro. He’s one of the best Catholic artists working today.

In my parish, as in most, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi has been moved from its traditional spot on the Thursday after Trinity to the following Sunday. There are many unfortunate implications of this liturgical change, but today I’d rather focus on what grace I received from the readings and prayers of today’s Ferial Mass.

I’d like to start, however, with a painting, “Transustanziazione,” by Giovanni Gasparro. Only in the work of Salvador Dali do we find a modern artist who captures the mystical dimension of the Eucharist in such an original way. And Gasparro’s piece is far simpler, and therefore more visually striking, than any of Dali’s several Eucharistic paintings.

Three pairs of hands, like the three pairs of wings on the seraphim and cherubim, bear aloft a bleeding host in undifferentiated space. The three sets of hands appear the samethey are, perhaps, the hands of the same priest captured over the lapse of time. This distortion of time and space lends the image a sense of eternity. We are viewing something transcendent. The Eucharist is not just an earthly event. It is also a rite which happens forever in the cosmic liturgy of heaven. And who is the Great High Priest offering that liturgy for us mortals? Who but Christ? In Gasparro’s image, Christ is present as priest and victim.

The three pairs of hands also remind us of the Trinity. When we approach the Eucharist, we truly approach the Triune God. At every Mass, the act of Transubstantiation only happens because of the work of the whole Trinity. Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit, through the hands of His priests and the prayer of His bride, the Church. It is meet and right that we should consider the painting at this point between the Ordinary Form celebrations of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi.

The painting has a certain sacramentality, in that, like the liturgy, it captures something of the invisible and manifests it to our earthbound senses. Looking at Gasparro’s painting, we have the sense that we are glimpsing something profound, unsettling, and sacredsomething ordinarily hidden from us. Do we not hear the words of St. Thomas’s Corpus Christi hymn, Lauda Sion?

Here beneath these signs are hidden,
Priceless things, to sense forbidden,
Signs, not things, are all we see.

Today’s liturgy powerfully brings this quality to mind. As we turn to the First Reading from today’s Mass, we encounter the words of St. Paul:

Brothers and sisters: To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over the hearts of the children of Israel, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Therefore, since we have this ministry through the mercy shown us, we are not discouraged. And even though our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they may not see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus. For God who said, Let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ.

This, from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians.

The Liturgical Providence of God permits us to hear these words of the Apostle on a day which, in the Old Calendar, was the preeminent feast of the Eucharist as such. All Thursdays are to be read in light of the Eucharist, mystically tied as they are to this holy feast and to Maundy Thursday.

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Russian icon of The Holy Face of Jesus “Not-Made-by-Hands”(Source).

St. Paul is doing many things in this passage. It is an extremely rich vein of mystical insight, and it could yield untold spiritual fruit. But one very clear move that St. Paul makes here is the parallel he draws between our faces and the face of Christ. As the Spirit has removed the veil of sin from our faces in Baptism, so too, He removes the veil from Christ’s priestly face in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the Baptized stand face-to-face with God Almighty. We must grow in the likeness of Christ’s Holy Face—”from glory to glory”—but only by approaching the glory of that face in the Eucharist.

What does this transformation practically look like? The readings give us hints.

The Gospel Acclamation, drawn from St. John, summarizes the commands of the Lord in the proper Gospel. We sing, “I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you.” Then, Christ tells us,

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Eucharistic community is characterized by peace. Its members govern their actions by deliberate and conscientious love. We are obliged to strive for this peace.

The proper Psalm depicts the spiritual condition of that moral environment, when

Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.

What, precisely, is the nature of this union of heaven and earth? Here, too, the Psalm furnishes a deeper insight. We sing in the refrain, “The glory of the Lord will dwell in our land.” There are many meanings bound up in this line of Holy Scripture. Three are immediately relevant to our purposes. The passage’s Sophiological meaning is that God’s glory will ultimately interpenetrate, indwell, and crown the redeemed cosmos. The passage’s Mariological meaning is that Christ will give His own divine-human self to the Church, the New Israel, through the Church’s perfect microcosm and icon, Mary, the true Daughter of Zion.

But the passage also has a Eucharistic meaning. There is a reason we are meant to chant this particular line of the Psalter on the Thursday that was (and at some level, still is) Corpus Christi. The Glory of God will dwell in the land by its fruits—bread and wine. Indeed, the Glory of God will so fill the bread and wine that they will cease to be bread and wine. God will pour out his glory upon our offerings until our “cup runneth over.” They may appear all the same to us, but in truth, they will become the Body and Blood of Christ. No part of their original essence will remain. This single act of outpouring and indwelling is God’s privileged path of union with souls and with all creation.

As the great theologian Jean Daniélou writes, “We have already seen the Eucharist as communion, covenant. Now we see it as presence, shekinah.” It is the same presence that animates the entire liturgy of the Ferial Thursday after Trinity and that hides quietly in the simple and sacramental art of Giovanni Gasparro.

Some Occasional Thoughts on the Holy Minimalists and the Light of Tabor

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Icon of the Transfiguration, by the hand of the great 15th century iconographer of Moscow, Theophanes the Greek.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them,”Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

These words from St. Matthew were the Gospel reading at Mass last night. Yesterday was the second weekend of Lent, and the Church directs our eyes, alongside those of the holy apostles, to the face of Our Lord in His Transfiguration. And in the Eastern Churches, today is St. Gregory Palamas Sunday. Palamas is most famous for his articulation of the Essence-Energies distinction as part of a broader polemic against the Byzantine Scholastic attacks on Hesychasm carried out by Barlaam of Seminara. One of Palamas’ key Scriptural examples of God’s energies is the “uncreated light” of Christ’s glory in the Transfiguration. St. Gregory is celebrated to this day by the Eastern Orthodox and by Eastern Catholics on their Lenten calendars; yet in the post-Scholastic West, he still holds no place on the calendar. I must wonder whether or not the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent were chosen at the revision of the Lectionary in part as an ecumenical gesture to the Orthodox, though my knowledge of 20th century liturgical innovations is shallow at best. Regardless, those who, to adapt a phrase of Pope St. John Paul II, “breathe with both lungs” of the Church can recognize the Providential coincidence of these two celebrations.

The Light of Tabor is, in a Palamite reading, the eternal Glory of God made manifest in, with, and through Christ’s created humanity. The Transfiguration is therefore an archetypal moment for every mysticnot just the Hesychasts whom St. Gregory was defending. In view of all this, while I listened to the priest reading the Gospel this evening, a song came to mind: “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” by Arvo Pärt. The lyrics are taken from a poem by Robert Burns. Here’s the chorus:

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

A few weeks ago, when I first listened to the song, it immediately struck me as a potent metaphor for the contemplative life. Is not the contemplative’s heart set in the “high lands” of the spirit, like St. John of the Cross’s Mount Carmel? And has the Divine not been associated with wild deer throughout history, from the panting hart of Psalm 42 to the vision of St. Hubert to the White Stag of Narnia? The Apostles, like the mystics, like the chanting voice in Pärt’s song, are “led…up a high mountain by themselves.” There, they find Christ’s true glory, the energy of His divinity totally interpenetrating all they can perceive of him. The created rises into the divine, and the uncreated bends towards the creaturely; the two meet in the transfigured Christ. The dual presence of the heavenly Elijah and the Sheol-bound Moses demonstrates the moment of radiant communion between God and His creation, manifested perfectly in Christ, the Word made flesh.

Pärt’s song describes the experience of the mystic, not because Burns’ words actually refer to contemplation, but because of the way he takes up the verse and stretches it against an agonizingly poignant organ composition. He sets secular words to sacred music. Thus he accomplishes in miniature the assumption of the creaturely by the divine that comes before our vision in the Transfiguration. Art at its finest is called to participate in this lesser Transfiguration, and Pärt is a consummate master of what Tolkien might call “sub-creation.”

But Pärt is not alone in this; one of his colleagues, John Tavener, arguably a finer and more mystically-oriented composer, also transfigured profane writings into sacred pieces of music. I can think of no better example of this than his brief and delightful motet, “The Lamb.” Tavener took the lyrics from William Blake’s poem of the same name. In full, it reads:

Little lamb, who made thee
 Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
 Little lamb, who made thee?
 Dost thou know who made thee?

 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is callèd by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are callèd by His name.
 Little lamb, God bless thee!
 Little lamb, God bless thee!

Here too, we might glimpse the transfigured Lamb of God between the lines of Blake’s verse. The lamb’s “clothing of delight/Softest clothing, woolly, bright” seems to echo the robe rendered “white as light” on Mt. Tabor. Blake speaks of “the vales” when Scripture instead would bring us up to the peaks. And the question that ends the first verse is fundamentally the same as that which must have run through the minds of the bewildered apostles; who is this man? The answer, of course, comes from the voice in the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And Tavener’s eerily beautiful choral setting imbues the lyrics with a dimension hitherto unimagined. Many of his works remind one of candlelight on ritual gold, or the smell of incense flying forth with the rhythm of thurible bells, or the echo that thins out asymptotically under the glittering mosaic of a high dome. “The Lamb” is all of this, presented compactly. It stands as one of his finest works, and one of his most spiritually rich.

I recently wrote about the Holy Minimalists in a piece on the music of The Young Pope. They’ve been on my mind. But I didn’t connect their artistic project to the Transfiguration until tonight. We Christians are to become “little Christs,” imitating Jesus in all things by adoption and deification. Sometimes, that takes the form of contemplation. The apostles model that path for us in their behavior on Mt. Tabor. But at other times, and in other ways, we are called to live the life of Christ more directly. The Transfiguration provides a mystical glimpse of what happensand indeed, what will happenwhen the uncreated Light of God assumes, permeates, and glorifies the creation. Of course, the energies of God are not found in the artifices of men; but artists can practice their own, creaturely form of transfiguration. The pieces of music I have discussed are shot through with an awareness of the divine presence, and the words that began as profane poetry become something altogether different, something sacred, something nearly liturgical.

At the beginning of Lent, T.S. Eliot tells us to “Redeem/The time.” On this, the Second Sunday of the penitential season, Christ reveals in Himself how we might do soa transfiguration that Arvo Pärt and John Tavener have achieved, in some small way, through their own creative work.