I have a very exciting if somewhat tardy announcement. I have some poetry being published in Volume II of Jesus the Imagination, the hot new Sophiological journal by Angelico Press. There’s plenty of other really good material in the journal, too, including work by friends of mine. Plus an interview with the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus! What’s not to love? As far as I’m aware I’m making no money whatsoever off this venture, but I still encourage you to buy a copy (or two, or three) if you want to read my contributions…or just the far more brilliant materials you’ll find there, too. Either way, I can promise you that Jesus the Imagination won’t disappoint!
The theme for this volume is Marriage. As I’m sure many of you know, marriage is an extraordinarily deep mystery in the heart of the Church’s sacramental life, mystical being, quotidien experience, and esoteric practice. To celebrate, I am reproducing here a poem by Charles Williams that scratches the surface of Matrimony’s essence. Williams, a friend of T.S. Eliot and fellow-Inkling to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, was a profound mystical thinker who kept returning to nuptial themes over the course of his career. The poem below comes from his first poetry collection, The Silver Stair (1912), a slim book I recently examined in the Bodleian. Enjoy.
Of Marriage and of its Priesthood
Here shall no pagan foot nor claw of beast
Enter; nor wizard sorcery be seen.
But sometime here have all true lovers been,
Nor hath the tale of outland riders ceased.
With hands of consecration now the priest
Exalts the holy sacrament between
The altar lights. Now, if your souls be clean,
Draw near: Himself Love gives you in His feast.
Whose voice in solemn ritual lifted up
Praises the Name of Love? Whose hands have blest
For you, His votaries, the mysterious Cup,
And set before you the ordained Food?
Voice of Himself, to narrow vows professed,
And hands of His adorable maidenhood.
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.
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.
Fr. Maurice Zundel was one of the great, if often-forgotten, theologians of the last century. Sometime student of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, he wrote various works of Catholic philosophy in conversation with existentialism, Protestantism, and personalism. This wide-ranging and erudite scholarship led soon-to-be-Saint Paul VI to call him “a mystical genius.” However, he is best known in the Anglophone world for his writing on the liturgy. This extract is taken from his great work, The Splendour of the Liturgy (1943), translated by Edward Watkin for Sheed & Ward. It comes from his chapter on “The Collect” (pg. 61-67). I was struck by this passage’s profound depths of wisdom as well as its light, imaginative style.
Prayer is the soul’s breath, the creature’s fiat in response to the Creator’s in that mysterious exchange which makes us God’s fellow-workers. Its purpose is not to inform God of needs which He knows infinitely better than we do ourselves, nor to move His will to satisfy them, for His will is the eternal gift of infinite Love. Its sole object is to make us more capable of receiving such a gift, to open our eyes to the light, to throw open the portals of our heart too narrow to give access to the King of glory. There is no need to importune God for our happiness, for He never ceases to will it. It is we who place the obstacle in its way and keep his love at arm’s length.
Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children, as a hen gathers her chickens beneath her wings, and thou wouldst not.
This surely is the most poignant expression of the Divine Tragedy: ‘I would, I, thy Lord and thy God—but thou, thou wouldst not.’ If we place this complaint side by side with the text already quoted from the Apocalypse, ‘I stand at the door and knock,’ we must conclude that God always hears man’s prayer, that He is the eternal answer to prayer, and that it is man who too often refuses to hear God’s prayer.
And prayer is precisely the response to Love’s eternal invitation, which is made with an infinite regard for our freedom. It is, therefore, superfluous to ask whether every prayer is heard. It is heard if and in so far as it is a genuine prayer. For genuine prayer is the opening of the soul to the mysterious invasion of the Divine Presence, and it is completely summed up in the final appeal of the Apocalypse: ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’ (61-62)
Throughout the chapter, Zundel strikes what we might call a sophiological note. He approaches the most basic substance of the Christian life—prayer—and carries on to the Eschaton, to spiritual nuptials, and to illumination from on high.
It remains true that there is no conversation without answers, no marriage of love without mutual consent. And it is a marriage of love that is to be concluded between God and ourselves. In this marriage whose intimate union must continually grow until its flower unfolds in eternity, prayer is our assent. There is no need to put it into words. It may be confined to a silent adherence, a simple look in which we give our entire being a calm silence in which, without adding anything of her own, the soul listens to Him who utters Himself within her by His single Word. And all prayer tends towards this transparent passivity which exposes the diamond of our free will to the rays of the eternal light. We can pray without asking for anything and without saying anything, that God may express Himself the more freely…
It is ultimately for the sake of God that the soul desires her own Beatitude, that no obstacle may thwart His love, that the world may realise its spiritual vocation, and that throughout creation all may be yea, as all is yea in God. (62-64)
Zundel notes that the peculiar genius of the Liturgy is the way it uses human spiritual needs as launchpads for a “flight” into the eternal. The Collects crystallize this function in that they often speak of our human wants. Zundel writes:
But their very sobriety forbids us to stop at their verbal surface. The soul has but to let herself go and she is launched on the open sea voyaging over abysses of light and darkness, of sorrow and peace. They are more than prayers, they are sacraments of prayer, formulas that induce the essential prayer which we have attempted to describe. (64-65)
Among Prayer-Book Anglicans, there used to be a very old custom of memorizing collects. I do wonder how many still keep it up—certainly, I don’t know of any Catholics who memorize collects. Imagine what would happen to our own spiritual lives, to say nothing of the Church militant, if we committed to learning a few by heart. If you’re looking for a beautiful English translation of the traditional collects, might I recommend a little volume published by W. Knott & Son. Otherwise, there’s another good alternative that came out around the same time.
I have just finished a rather interesting piece by Michael Martin, perhaps the leading Catholic sophiologist, on the subject of heresy. Martin argues that we even ostensible heretics have something to offer orthodox Christians. It helps that he grounds his points more in lived experience than any kind of normative Christian discourse. I quote at length:
But cries of “Heresy!” are in no way confined to those usually identified as adherents of a religious conservatism. My own work in sophiology, for instance, moves into territory some might consider dangerously heretical, but the most vicious attacks on me and my work—-calling both me and it “satanic”—-have come not from those of a manualist persuasion, but from those more aligned with a social justice approach to religious questions (although the manualists and Neo-Thomists have not been my most sympathetic readers, at least they haven’t suspected that I was possessed!).
For my part, I doubt I’d have any faith at all were it not for heresy. As a former Waldorf teacher and a practicing biodynamic farmer, I don’t know who I’d be without encountering the work of Rudolf Steiner (a guy who will set off the “heretic alarm” in just about any religious tradition) who taught me, among other things, about the centrality of Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice for not only human beings but for the cosmos at a time when I was wandering in the desert of postmodernity and consumer culture. Likewise, had I not stumbled across Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ (based on the novel by Niko Kazantzakis) and Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal in my late twenties, I doubt I would have returned to the Catholic Church. Likewise, my engagement with the work of Jacob Boehme opened for me a way into religious understanding paralleled in some degree by the radical way Martin Heidegger redefined philosophy for me. There are many other heretics to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, but these will suffice.
I differ with Martin on some important points. I am much more sanguine towards the Dubia and the Correctio than he is (I see them as necessary for the preservation of orthopraxis as well as a helpful move away from ultramontane ecclesiology; both movements vindicate Cardinal Newman). Likewise, when Martin writes later that…
It may be that these so-called heretics possess something many allegedly “faithful” Christians don’t: a sincere approach to the figure of Jesus, unencumbered by obligations to dogma. Because of such sincerity, Jesus is able to bleed through obscurity and fable.
…he may be putting just a bit too fine a point on it. Dogma matters. One could cite any number of perfectly respectable theologians who write of how desperately we need dogma (once again, I think of Newman in the Apologia), but I’d rather not belabor the matter. The problem lies not with dogma, but with dogmatism, a tendency to regard far more as settled than actually is. Moreover, Martin makes much of the fact that he has “learned much about Jesus from heretics.”
Here, I am in a somewhat qualified agreement with Martin. First, because I, too, have been deeply influenced by figures whom some would consider heretical, from George Herbert to Johann Georg Hamann to Jacob Boehme to Ernst Fuchs to William Blake. I came to the faith in part because my imagination was prepared by that deeply heretical musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. One of my closest mentors in college was an Armenian Orthodox theologian and ethicist —technically, a miaphysite. I have something approaching a devotion to Charles I, King and Martyr, even though he was not reconciled to Rome at the time of his death. Thomists at least would frown upon my fondness for St. Gregory Palamas and his mystical theology. A number of Jewish authors have helped me find my theological bearings—particularly Halevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Maimonides, and the authors of the Zohar. Various authors of the Frankfurt School made a tremendous impact on me in college. Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” still resonate deeply with me, and force me to reckon with the complications of my own tradition. If you want to be really strict about what constitutes heresy, even someone as ostensibly Marian and Ecclesial as T.S. Eliot, a poet who has shaped my thought in more ways than I know, would nevertheless be heretical for his high Anglicanism as well as his unsound views on birth control. And need I mention that far more egregious heretic, Herman Melville? Moby Dick was like a revelation for me when I first read it last year.
There are more thinkers I could cite who are problematic in the face of formal orthodoxy. The Catechism tells us,
Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” CCC 2089
I would wager that most if not all of the authors I mentioned could be charged with at least one of these sins. So what? I don’t regret the wisdom they have shared with me. To the contrary, I am a better person for my contact with their lives and works.
The fact is, most of us are probably indebted to heretics of some kind in some way or other. We arrive at this state, not through any deliberate, insidious intent, but merely by a thorough education. And what is education if not learning how to find diamonds amidst coal? A well-read man will inevitably encounter writers whose view of the world is imperfect (as his own is). But that encounter can be very beneficial if wedded to discretion and wisdom. Surely this maxim is just as true for the theologian as for any other scholar. The perfection of his discipline consists not in the purity of his intellectual lineage, but in attaining the vision of God. At a certain point, systemic rigor breaks down in the face of the absolute and ineffable mystery.
Let me add a brief theological note. Like Martin, I think sophiology is a terribly important idea. The sophiology of Bulgakov et al. was (sort of) condemned by a (compromised) Moscow Patriarchate in 1935. The Orthodox remain deeply divided over its actual status as a heresy. Nevertheless, its intellectual legacy lingers in both East and West, and it is still proving to be a fertile source of theological discussion. I pray that it will continue to develop in the 21st century.
Thirdly, as an historian, I have to admit that Martin’s conclusion isn’t all that unusual. Scholars have increasingly recognized since the 1930’s that, as a matter of historical fact, the boundaries between heresy and orthodoxy have been notably porous over the centuries. The case of Origen alone would suffice to illustrate the issue, though more could be cited. What may seem perfectly orthodox in one era could turn out to be declared heretical as doctrine develops and clarifies over the course of the ages. Or quite the opposite; we lay faithful can now receive the Blessed Sacrament in both kinds. Previously, Utraquism was condemned along with all the rest of Jan Hus’s errors (though personally, I dislike this liturgical practice and rarely receive in both kinds myself).
There are practical concerns at play, too. Theologians must retain a certain level of intellectual freedom if any kind of development is to happen at all. How are we to approach that freedom? How to canalize the vast and manifold energies of the spirit, so often diffused in an erratic array of chattering and solipsistic spurts of “dialogue” online? The free “Republic of Letters” spoken of by the Humanists and their early modern descendants is, I think, a much better model for our own theological era than the mechanistic logic and endless citation of authorities seen among the classical Scholastics. I’ll add that the increasingly important field of visual theology poses other important questions. The encryption and interpretation of meaning through art, emblems, ritual, and other aesthetic media opens itself to all manner of views. Some are orthodox, others heterodox. This very heterogeneity requires a certain degree of freedom for discussion and discernment. There is an irony in Martin’s rejection of the Dubia and the Correctio. Both documents rely upon and exemplify the very academic freedom that his piece latently extols.
Don’t get me wrong. Heresy is and always has been a sin, and a mortal one at that. We should oppose it; the proper authorities should correct it through the proper channels, and in the case of open and public heresy, the laity can and should do so as well. But Martin is right to note that the individual ideas of heretics can be fruitful for deepening properly orthodox meditations. More importantly, God can make whatever use of them He wishes. I doubt that Martin is or will be the only one who has “learned much about Jesus” from those deemed heretics.
In my review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, I wrote the following:
I’m not suggesting that Dreher is necessarily wrong in his various judgments. He may well be correct in accusing the nominalists of a kind of cultural deicide (although it overlooks the Christian nominalist tendency, closely tied to empiricism, that numbers Berkeley, Burke, Hamann, Newman, and Chesterton among its ranks).
I subsequently received some pushback for making such a claim. After all, eminent philosophers and theologians had long made nominalism the villain of their narratives about the rise of an anti-Christian modernity. Others questioned my assertion about Newman in particular.
At that time, I defended myself by suggesting that, while I may be off in ascribing a specifically nominalist tendency to these thinkers, that nevertheless, they all do share, inter alia, a suspicion of universalizing abstraction, a respect for concrete particularity in its various forms, and a trust in prudence gained from experience. I interpreted this tendency as akin to the nominalist rejection of substantively existent universals. I also thought that one of the reasons this way of thinking might matter is in our dialogue with postmodernity, which is itself so suspicious of universals and grand narratives.
Nevertheless, I erred. I was mistaken to use that label of nominalism. I must thank my critics for pointing this out. In the many months since then, I have learned what would be the proper term to tie together these particular thinkers – not to mention Gerard Manley Hopkins and J.R.R. Tolkien.
The “nominalist tendency” is really a Scotist tendency. (The fact that I could make such an ironic error is, perhaps, a sign of my own ignorance. I own that. Scholasticism isn’t really my thing.) Chastened by my previous mistake, I hesitate to delve too deeply into the technical depths of Scotist philosophy. I will state briefly that a belief in the idea of haecceity as the unique thisness of each particular sums up the tendency’s core point. If I had time, I’d like to investigate if any firmer affinities could be found.
However, I believe I am now on much sounder territory. The Franciscan Daniel Horan’s work has focused on a postmodern engagement with Scotus, and the Scotism of Newman and Hopkins have been well-attested in the literature. Tolkien took up the theological note behind Hopkins’s ideas of inscape and instress, themselves poetic derivations of Scotist haecceity. More work still needs to be done in English on Hamann, but the image that is emerging is of a figure passionately devoted to the disruptive nature of ordinary, particular experience. His willingness to contest the established narratives of the Aufklärung predates postmodernism by a century and a half. Chesterton is cut from the same cloth. Bishop Berkeley, though perhaps not quite so colorful as either of these two, stakes his empiricism on the particularity of the thing perceived (ultimately, by God). And Burke transposes the idea into the realm of politics, tempered by a healthy respect for natural law.
Two observations come to mind. The first is that nearly all of these thinkers are English or Anglophone. An enquiry into the reasons behind English Scotism would be useful. In its absence, I will merely note that Scotus, that medieval Oxford theologian, seems to have been directly reintroduced into the life of modern English spirituality by another Oxford theologian, John Henry Newman. It was Newman’s influence that defined intellectual Catholicism in England until the conclusion of Vatican II.
The second is that several of these thinkers are literary figures in their own right. Hopkins is principally remembered as a poet, Chesterton as a journalist, novelist, and poet, and Tolkien as a novelist. Newman was a prolific writer across genres. He exerted a personal influence over Hopkins, Matthew Arnold, and Oscar Wilde. And Hamann’s own deeply bizarre output constantly blurs the rigid lines of 18th century drama (yet another way he foreshadows our own postmodern era).
I must wonder if Scotist thought is particularly apt for the production of theology in a poetic mode, as the Catholic Sophiologists of our own day are seeking to do. I certainly have friends who think so. At the very least, Scotus’s high Mariology accords well with the extremely high Mariology of some Sophiologists.
If I had more time, I should like to dive more deeply into these questions. For now, I seek only to explain myself a bit, and apologize for what was clearly a serious error.
ADDENDUM: I also meant to say that Delleuze’s appropriation of haecceity as a fundamental concept lends support to my own impulse of putting these thinkers in conversation with postmodernism.
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 causes all the demons to fear and tremble.
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 Mother 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.
The feast we celebrate today has moved around a bit. It only came to the kalendar in 1683, when Pope Innocent XI wished to commemorate the liberation of Vienna from the Ottoman siege. He originally placed it on the 17th, the Octave Day of Our Lady’s Nativity. The feast was later transferred to the 15th, and then done away with altogether by Archbishop Bugnini in one of his more obnoxious acts of liturgical vandalism. Pope St. John Paul II restored it in 2002, and now we celebrate it as an optional memorial on September 12th.
Accordingly, it behooves us to ponder the writings of the saints. For as it is a maxim in theology that we are led by lower things to higher, so we may pursue the heights of Our Lady’s throne only by the steps which our closer contemporaries have tread before us. Besides, while the feast may be relatively new in the life of the Church, the devotion it honors is much older. There is consequently much to choose from.
Consider the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
“And the Virgin’s name was Mary.” Let us speak a little about this name, which is said to mean “star of the sea,” and which so well befits the Virgin Mother. Rightly is she likened to a star. As a star emits a ray without being dimmed, so the Virgin brought forth her Son without receiving any injury. The ray takes naught from the brightness of the star, nor the Son from His Mother’s virginal integrity. This is the noble star risen out of Jacob, whose ray illumines the whole world, whose splendor shines in the heavens, penetrates the abyss, and, traversing the whole earth, gives warmth rather to souls than to bodies, cherishing virtues, withering vices. Mary is that bright and incomparable star, whom we need to see raised above this vast sea, shining by her merits, and giving us light by her example.
All of you, who see yourselves amid the tides of the world, tossed by storms and tempests rather than walking on the land, do not turn your eyes away from this shining star, unless you want to be overwhelmed by the hurricane. If temptation storms, or you fall upon the rocks of tribulation, look to the star: Call upon Mary! If you are tossed by the waves of pride or ambition, detraction or envy, look to the star, call upon Mary. If anger or avarice or the desires of the flesh dash against the ship o f your soul, turn your eyes to Mary. If troubled by the enormity of your crimes, ashamed of your guilty conscience, terrified by dread of the judgment, you begin to sink into the gulf of sadness or the abyss of despair, think of Mary. In dangers, in anguish, in doubt, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let her name be even on your lips, ever in your heart; and the better to obtain the help of her prayers, imitate the example of her life: “Following her, thou strayest not; invoking her, thou despairest not; thinking of her, thou wanderest not; upheld by her, thou fallest not; shielded by her, thou fearest not; guided by her, thou growest not weary; favored by her, thou reachest the goal. And thus dost thou experience in thyself how good is that saying: ‘And the Virgin’s name was Mary.'”
St. Alphonsus Liguori, that Mariologist who so scrupulously records the thoughts of prior saints, affirms the antiquity and holiness of this devotion.
To begin with life, the holy anchorite, Honorius, says, that the name of Mary is [full] of all divine sweetness. And the glorious St. Anthony of Padua attributes to the name of Mary the same sweetness as St. Bernard attributed to the name of Jesus. The name of Jesus, said the latter, the name of Mary, said the former, is joy to the heart, honey to the mouth, melody to the ear of their devoted servants. It is related in the life of the venerable Father John Ancina, Bishop of Saluzzo, that when he pronounced the name of Mary, he experienced so great a sensible sweetness that he even tasted it on his lips. We also read that a certain woman in Cologne told the Bishop Marsillius, that whenever she pronounced the name of Mary she perceived in her mouth a taste sweeter than honey. Marsillius made the trial, and he also experienced the same sweetness. We read in the holy Canticles, that at the Assumption of the Virgin, the angels three times asked her name: “Who is she that goeth up by the desert as a pillar of smoke?” “Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising?” And in another: “Who is this that cometh up from the desert, flowing with delights?” Richard of St. Laurence inquires why the angels so often asked the name of this queen, and answers: The sound of the name of Mary was so sweet to the angels, and they repeated the question that they might hear it repeated also.
But I do not hear speak of this sensible sweetness, since it is not commonly granted to all, but I speak of the salutary sweetness of consolation, love, joy, confidence, and strength, which the name of Mary universally gives to those who, with devotion, pronounce it. Speaking on this subject, Francone the Abbot says, that next to the holy name of Jesus, the name of Mary is so rich in blessings, that no other name is uttered on earth or in heaven from which devout souls receive so much grace, hope, and sweetness. For the name of Mary, he goes on to say, contains in itself something admirable, sweet, and divine, which, when it meets a friendly heart, breathes into it an odor of holy sweetness. And the wonder of this great name is, he concludes, that if heard a thousand times by the lovers of Mary, it is always heard as new, the sweetness they experience in hearing it spoken being always the same.
The blessed Henry Suso, also speaking of this sweetness, says, that in pronouncing the name of Mary, he felt his confidence so much increased, and his love so joyfully enkindled, that amidst the joy and tears with which he pronounced the beloved name, he thought his heart would have leaped from his mouth ; and he affirmed that this most sweet name, as honeycomb, melted into the depths of his soul. Whereat he exclaims: Oh most sweet name! oh Mary, what must thou thyself be, if thy name alone is so lovely and sweet?
Nor is this devotion entirely absent outside the Church of Rome. One of George Herbert’s better epigrams runs as follows:
Incidentally, the aforementioned Bishop of Saluzzo, Bl. John Juvenal Ancina, was a founder of the Naples Oratory and a personal disciple of St. Philip Neri. Can there be any doubt that the bishop learned his devotion at the side of his spiritual father?
And we should learn it in turn from the saints who have gone before us, those holy men and women who now stand rejoicing in an eternal contemplation of Our Lady’s beatific name.
The Church offers us the way of salvation. She declares the destination, Heaven; she notes our provenance, the bondage of our sinful nature. And she furnishes a route from the latter up to the former. Or, I might say, “routes.” For while the Cruciform road to Heaven may appear singular from afar, anyone who enters the Journey will find that it is in fact composed of many different paths. The holy diversity of the Church is one testament of its Catholicity. Like a great Cathedral or Basilica that appears as one massive edifice from the street but harbors dozens of little side-altars within, each distinctly the Table of the Lord, the Church offers more streams of spirituality than we can discern. Some flow still in our midst, giving life to multitudes. Others run dry. And some thought long-extinct may suddenly spring forth in new vim and vigor.
It is only a natural and concurrent fact that the Church should likewise offer her children a diverse array of spiritual writers. There is the beautiful, mysterious Areopagite; the mighty, noble St. Augustine; the dazzlingly imaginative St. Ephrem the Syrian; the logical, pacific Aquinas; the bloody consolations of Dame Julian; the gleaming shadows of St. John of the Cross; the brooding brilliance of Pascal; the soaring eloquence of Bossuet; the roseate cheer of St. Thérèse of Lisieux; the luminous fragmentation of T.S. Eliot; the Gothic grotesquerie of Flannery O’Connor. The list goes on and on.
The English Catholic Revival was a fertile time for spiritual writers. At the fountainhead of the entire movement stands Cardinal Newman, whose massive influence is still being felt by theologians and writers today. The founder of the English Oratory was a masterful stylist, so much so that James Joyce considered him the greatest master of English prose. Every ecclesiastical development proves that Newman’s theology is more timely than ever. He has been lauded by subsequent generations, and rightly so. When he is eventually canonized, he will certainly be declared a Doctor of the Church for his labors.
But he has, sadly, overshadowed another figure, one no less deserving of praise for his own work on behalf of the Gospel. That man is Fr. Frederick William Faber, the founder of the London Oratory.
Faber was an Oxford convert like Newman. After leaving the University, he first served as an Anglican parish priest in Northamptonshire. He would later bring eleven men with him across the Tiber when he resigned his post. After shepherding the community for a short time, he eventually joined forces with Newman and co-founded the English Oratory. They split the country. Newman went to Birmingham, and Faber went to London. In the course of his time there, he gained notoriety as a preacher of remarkable versatility and power, a widely-respected hymnodist, a constant friend of the poor, and an authoritative teacher of the spiritual life. As one source has it, his written works
…are a mine of spiritual gold of the highest purity, refined and drawn from Faber’s deep understanding of Catholic spiritual theology. For he had delved deeply, not only into the standard Scholastic philosophy and theology, but especially into the mystical schools. Father Faber was a brilliant man whose theology of the Absolute Primacy of Christ and Mary is grounded in that of the Subtle Doctor, Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), all recast in simple ordinary English. (174).
When he died, all the great Catholics of England honored his memory. In France, even the formidable abbot of Solesmes, Dom Prosper Guéranger, admired his writings and wrote of him fondly.
But Faber is a largely forgotten figure today, at least among American Catholics. While most have probably heard at least one or two of his hymns, such as “Faith of Our Fathers,” few read more deeply into his life or thought. Why? What has caused this lacuna in our collective memory?
There are, I think, two primary reasons.
The first is that he is eclipsed by Newman. The two had differences in their own day. Newman was resolutely opposed to the pretensions of Ultramonatism; Faber, like Cardinal Manning, was a strong advocate of Rome’s prerogatives. Newman always wanted to return to Oxford and restore some traces of his old, academic life; Faber was content to build the finest church of Great Britain in London, to better minister to the poor. Newman was always a little wary about Marian titles and devotions; Faber practically bathed in them. As Monsignor Rondald Knox writes in 1945,
While Faber is introducing the British public to the most luscious legends of the Counter-Reformation, Newman is still concerned over the difficulties of Anglicans, still asking how and in what sense Catholic doctrine has developed, still cautiously delimiting the spheres of faith and reason. (“The Conversions of Newman and Faber,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 875).
The tensions surrounding Faber’s spirituality eventually led Newman to formally, judicially separate the two houses. Sadly, “While Newman visited Faber shortly before his death, the two men were not able to fully resolve their differences.”
The second, related to the first, is part stylistic, part spiritual. Consider an analogy. Among the Metaphysical Poets, the meditative Donne has always outshone the ebullient Crashaw. Logos is easy to parse. Its analysis is a straightforward, if sometimes arduous task. Pathos, however, is a more slippery beast altogether, and one less communicable and less persistent than we should like to think. It may fire one breast and repel another. Not all hearts chime the same tune in the same wind. Likewise, Newman’s depth, intellect, and style have garnered more attention than Faber’s flowery devotions. His devotional prose is as purple as it gets. Consider the following passage, taken from Part I of “The Mystery of the Precious Blood.”
SALVATION! What music is there in that word – music that never tires but is always new, that always rouses yet always rests us! It holds in itself all that our hearts would say. It is sweet vigor to us in the morning, and in the evening it is contented peace. It is a song that is always singing itself deep down in the delighted soul. Angelic ears are ravished by it up in Heaven; and our Eternal Father Himself listens to it with adorable complacency. It is sweet even to Him out of Whose mind is the music of a thousand worlds. To be saved! What is it to be saved? Who can tell? Eye has not seen, nor ear heard. It is a rescue, and from such a shipwreck. It is a rest, and in such an unimaginable home. It is to lie down forever in the bosom of God in an endless rapture of insatiable contentment. (“The Mystery of the Precious Blood“)
Or, later in the same volume, when he writes the following passage.
Green Nazareth was not a closer hiding-place than the risen glory of the Forty Days. As of old, the Precious Blood clung round the sinless Mother. Like a stream that will not leave its parent chain of mountains, but laves them incessantly with many an obstinate meandering, so did the Blood of Jesus, shed for all hearts of men, haunt the single heart of Mary. Fifteen times, or more in those Forty Days, it came out from under the shadow of Mary’s gladness and gleamed forth in beautiful apparitions. Each of them is a history in itself, and a mystery, and a revelation. Never did the Sacred Heart say or do such ravishing things as those Forty Days of its Risen Life. The Precious Blood had almost grown more human from having been three days in the keeping of the Angels. But, as it had mounted Calvary on Good Friday, so now it mounts Olivet on Ascension Thursday, and disappears into Heaven amidst the whiteness of the silver clouds. It had been but a decree in Heaven before, a Divine idea, an eternal compassion, an inexplicable complacency of the life of God. It returns thither a Human Life, and is throned at the Right Hand of the Father forever in right of its inalienable union with the Person of the Word. There is no change in the Unchangeable. But in Heaven there had never been change like this before, nor ever will be again. The changes of the Great Doom can be nothing compared to the exaltation of the Sacred Humanity of the Eternal Word. The very worship of the glorious spirits was changed, so changed that the Angels themselves cannot say how it is that no change has passed on God. Somehow the look of change has enhanced the magnificence of the Divine immutability, and has given a new gladness to their adoration of its unspeakable tranquility (“The History of the Precious Blood“).
Or this passage from The Blessed Sacrament, taken from a friend who posted it on Facebook for the Nativity of Mary.
Let us mount higher still. Earth never broke forth with so gay and glad fountain as when the Babe Mary, the infant who was the joy of the whole world, the flower of God’s invisible creation, and the perfection of the invisible and hitherto queenless angels of His court, came like the richest fruit, ready-ripe and golden, of the world’s most memorable September. There is hardly a feast in the year so gay and bright as this of her Nativity, right in the heart of the happy harvest, as though she were, as indeed she was, earth’s heavenliest growth, whose cradle was to rock to the measures of the worlds vintage songs; for she had come who was the true harvest-home that homeless world.
His devotion to Our Lady was legendary. He was, in fact, the first English translator of St. Louis de Montfort’s famous text, True Devotion to Mary…and that even before he had become an Oratorian! He was also probably the first English author to think of Mary as Co-Redemptrix. In one of his hymns, he declares:
Mother of God! we hail thy heart,
Throned in the azure skies,
While far and wide within its charm
The whole creation lies.
O sinless heart, all hail!
God’s dear delight, all hail!
Our home, our home is deep in thee,
Fr. Faber’s devotion to Our Lady extended beyond his prolific writings. He not only translated St. Louis’s book. In 1846, he undertook his own Marian consecration in the Holy House of Loreto. He had a tendency to refer to the Mother of God as “Mama.” A famous episode related by Monsignor Knox depicts Fr. Faber at one of his more florid moments. After a particularly high Marian procession at the Oratory, he was observed weeping. Without any care for who heard, he cried out, “Won’t Mamma be pleased?” (“The Conversion of Faber,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 891).
None of this spirituality or the writing in which it comes to us fits our modern tastes. It is too perfumed, too sickly-sweet, too campy, too Victorian, too decadent, too redolent of pastel holy cards mouldering in antique prayer books. One critic puts it thus:
There are great slabs of passages, sometimes chapters at a time, which glow with ethereal light but have little content. Hypnotized by his own fluency Faber flows on and on, melodious and tedious…There are awful lapses of taste. (Chapman, quoted here).
And certainly, Faber cared not one shred for taste. The only thing that mattered was the salvation and sanctification of souls. Knox tells us that “‘Art for art’s sake’ had no meaning for him…if a bad verse would have more chance of winning souls than a good verse, down the bad verse would go” (“The Conversion of Faber,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 891). There is much to criticize in this tendency from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Christians should commit themselves to the highest standards in all artistic and literary endeavors.
But it is hard not to like the man weeping after the procession; it is harder still to feel totally averse to passages that glow purple as the evening sky. One has the sense that Fr. Faber would have been a remarkable presence today, if only because his emotionalism and baroque, slightly kitschy aesthetic would have made him an ironic celebrity on Weird Catholic Twitter. Imagine what he would have done with memes!
Yet he would also be a sign of contradiction. We have seen a renewed emphasis on Muscular Christianity, with a proliferation of websites, associations, and thinkpieces all dedicated to restoring “authentic masculinity” and resisting the “feminization” of the liturgy. This is a particularly popular movement within the larger Traditionalist wing of the Church. In brief, the narrative usually runs as follows:
1) After Vatican II, the Novus Ordo initiated a new, “feminine” form of the Mass.
2) This innovation was a substantive capitulation to the Sexual Revolution.
3) Men don’t want to serve a feminized Church in a feminized liturgy, with altar girls, felt banners, versus populum, happy-clappy music, etc.
4) The vocations crisis of the last 30-40 years ensues.
5) As such, we need to restore more pronounced gender binaries and hierarchies along with the Usus Antiquior.
Some of this narrative may be correct. I refrain from judging its particular historical claims, social implications, or theological presuppositions.
Nevertheless, Fr. Faber confounds that entire way of thinking. He was anything but a “Muscular” Christian. His personality, style, and spirituality were so clearly “feminine” that his own nephew, the publisher Geoffrey Faber, considered him a probable closet case (see David Hilliard’s famous essay “UnEnglish and Unmanly,” page 5). Whether or not his (disputed) conclusions about the priest (and all the leaders of the Oxford Movement) are true, it suffices to say that Fr. Faber was far from the “authentically masculine” man fetishized by the new Muscular Christianity. Yet liturgically he was known as one of the highest of the high, and his sons at the Brompton Oratory continue that admirable tradition. If nothing else, Fr. Faber’s legacy is the Oratory that still stand as a landmark of reverence, beauty, and transcendent holiness in the midst of postconciliar banality.
What’s more, Fr. Faber is not just a fine hymnodist and devotional writer. He penetrated deep mysteries of the faith. A thoroughgoing Scotist, he advocated the thesis (shared by this author) that Christ probably would have been incarnated anyway even if Adam had never fallen. And as the Church’s Mariology continues to develop, his arguments on behalf of Our Lady’s Co-Redemption may yet prove invaluable. Sophiologists should take note. Here is a man after our own heart.
Fr. Faber writes of Our Lady’s suffering in a passage worth quoting at length:
But this is not all. She co-operated with our Lord in the redemption of the world in quite a different sense, a sense which can never be more than figuratively true of the Saints. Her free consent was necessary to the Incarnation, as necessary as free will is to merit according to the counsels of God. She gave Him the pure blood, out of which the Holy Ghost fashioned His Flesh and bone and Blood. She bore Him in her womb for nine months, feeding Him with her own substance. Of her was He born, and to her He owed all those maternal offices which, according to common laws, were necessary for the preservation of His inestimable life. She exercised over Him the plenitude of parental jurisdiction. She consented to His Passion; and if she could not in reality have withheld her consent, because it was already involved in her original consent to the Incarnation, nevertheless she did not in fact withhold it, and so He went to Calvary as her free-will offering to the Father. Now, this is co-operation in a different sense from the former, and if we compare it with the co-operation of the Saints, their own co-operation, in which Mary herself alone surpassed them all, we shall see that this other peculiar co-operation of hers was indispensable to the redemption of the world as effected on the Cross. Souls could be saved without the co-operation of the Saints. The soul of the penitent thief was saved with no other co-operation than that of Mary, and, if our Blessed Lord had so willed it, could have been saved without even that. But the co-operation of the Divine Maternity was indispensable. Without it our Lord would not have been born when and as He was; He would not have had that Body to suffer in; the whole series of the Divine purposes would have been turned aside, and either frustrated, or diverted into another channel. It was through the free will and blissful consent of Mary that they flowed as God would have them flow. Bethlehem, and Nazareth, and Calvary, came out of her consent, a consent which God did in no wise constrain. But not only is the co-operation of the Saints not indispensable of itself, but no one Saint by himself is indispensable to that co-operation. Another Apostle might have fallen, half the Martyrs might have sacrificed to idols, the Saints in each century might have been a third fewer in number than they were, and yet the co-operation of the Saints would not have been destroyed, though its magnificence would have been impaired. Its existence depends on the body, not on the separate individuals. No one Saint who can be named, unless perhaps it were in some sense St. Peter, was necessary to the work, so necessary that without him the work could not have been accomplished. But in this co-operation of Mary she herself was indispensable. It depended upon her individually. Without her the work could not have been accomplished. Lastly, it was a co-operation of a totally different kind from that of the Saints. Theirs was but the continuation and application of a sufficient redemption already accomplished, while hers was a condition requisite to the accomplishment of that redemption. One was a mere consequence of an event which the other actually secured, and which only became an event by means of it. Hence it was more real, more present, more intimate, more personal, and with somewhat of the nature of a cause in it, which cannot in any way be predicated of the co-operation of the Saints. And all this is true of the co-operation of Mary, without any reference to the dolors at all…Our Lord had taken a created nature, in order that by its means He might accomplish that great work; so it seemed as if the highest honor and the closest union of a sinless creature with Himself should be expressed in the title of co-redemptress. In fact, there is no other single word in which the truth could be expressed; and, far off from His sole and sufficient redemption as Mary’s co-operation lies, her co-operation stands alone and aloof from all the co-operation of the elect of God. This, like some other prerogatives of our Blessed Lady, cannot have justice done it by the mere mention of it. We must make it our own by meditation before we can understand all that it involves. But neither the Immaculate Conception nor the Assumption will give us a higher idea of Mary’s exaltation than this title of co-redemptress, when we have theologically ascertained its significance. Mary is vast on every side, and, as our knowledge and appreciation of God grow, so also will grow our knowledge and appreciation of her His chosen creature. No one thinks unworthily of Mary, except because he thinks unworthily of God. Devotion to the Attributes of God is the best school in which to learn the theology of Mary; and the reward of our study of Mary lies in a thousand new vistas that are opened to us in the Divine Perfections, into which except from her heights we never could have seen at all.
(“The Compassion of Mary,” emphases in source.)
There is much in this text, and in so many like it, to warm a Catholic’s flagging devotion to the Mother of God. For that treasure alone, we should be grateful.
As his writing on this subject demonstrates, Father Faber was in all things the most enthusiastic and the most Roman of Catholics. Yet his prodigious work on behalf of the Gospel, and the ardor with which he was wont to express himself, made him a popular figure even among Protestants. His hymns are sung by traditional and mainline Protestant churches even today.
A.W. Tozer held him in high esteem, going so far as to write:
Spinoza wrote of the intellectual love of God, and he had a measure of truth there; but the highest love of God is not intellectual, it is spiritual. God is spirit and only the spirit of man can know Him really. In the deep spirit of a man the fire must glow or his love is not the true love of God. The great of the Kingdom have been those who loved God more than others did. We all know who they have been and gladly pay tribute to the depths and sincerity of their devotion. We have but to pause for a moment and their names come trooping past us smelling of myrrh and aloes and cassia out of the ivory palaces. Frederick Faber was one whose soul panted after God as the roe pants after the water brook, and the measure in which God revealed Himself to his seeking heart set the good man’s whole life afire with a burning adoration rivaling that of the seraphim before the throne. His love for God extended to the three Persons of the Godhead equally, yet he seemed to feel for each One a special kind of love reserved for Him alone. The Pursuit of God, p. 40 (quoted here)
If a modern master of Protestant spirituality can appreciate the peculiar wisdom of this effusive little man, then what excuse do we have? The Church has entrusted him to our memory and will, I hope, some day do so formally at the altar of God.
I began this essay describing the various spiritualities that have animated the Church from its earliest days. Some remain vital, others have disappeared, and some may yet come back from quietude. The strange and fragrant spirituality Father Faber let out into the world may appear as one of those dried-up streams, never again to impart life to the desert of our world. We are not Victorians. Yet this great Oratorian offers his gift to us still. We are the ones who must accept it. I have little doubt that his life, example, and thought are welcome aids in our pursuit of Heaven.
Emmy Award-winning wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson takes viewers on an authored odyssey along Ireland’s rugged Atlantic coast – the place he chooses to make his home after 30 years spent shooting some of the world’s most celebrated wildlife films.
The show goes far beyond what we’re used to in the usual nature documentaries. Stafford-Johnson’s skill with the camera is peerless. Many of his shots are photographic gems in their own right. His birds are a particular delight to watch. He captures them as they move in stillness—Kestrel, Eagle, Swan. Brought together with beautiful music and sensitive narration over the course of two hours, the gorgeous shots elevate each other to the level of true documentary art.
Stafford-Johnson couldn’t be more different than, say, David Attenborough—distant, officious, illustrative, objective, professorial. In a word, British.
Instead, he has given us a distinctly Irish documentary. Every scene is infused with an Irish sensibility. Gone is the slightly stuffy, very British narration conveying little more than scientific data about the life cycle and behavior of various animals; gone the humanitarian appeals for conservation or legislative action on climate change; gone, too, the very American emphasis on spectacle and action. While there’s some information about the creatures that inhabit the west coast of Ireland and the threats they face, it comes across in a very different way. British and American nature shows are prose, and sometimes clunky, technical prose at that. Ireland’s Wild Coast is pure poetry. Or even—dare I say it—a prayer.
At every turn, we can sense Stafford-Johnson’s affection for and intimacy with his subject. For example, Stafford-Johnson rather touchingly says that a stag in rut “has only one thing on his mind: fatherhood.” He admires the tenacity of the humble lamprey; “Any creature that has been around for that long has got life sorted.” He has a wonderful tendency to humanize the animals he films. Surrounded by humpback whales at rest after feeding, he says, “I like to think that other animals can be happy.” In some sense, that’s the whole point of Ireland’s Wild Coast. To show us the joy of the natural world, and help us rekindle our wonder in it.
Likewise, Stafford-Johnson’s environmental concerns are usually framed by a winsome sense of home. These animals are Ireland; they belong to the land and sea; they form an integral part of his home, and must be preserved as such. The Irish sense of place, an obsession that has formed the country’s art, literature, and politics for centuries, colors Stafford-Johnson’s narration in more ways than one. For this film is not just a nature documentary. At the Skelligs, at Great Blasket, at Corcomroe, and in his traditional rowboat, Stafford-Johnson reflects on the Irish people in their history and culture. He wistfully wonders what kind of life the men who built the beehive huts of Skellig Michael might have led. He contemplates the dissolution of the monasteries. And he tells us a few old Irish legends along the way.
The viewer is led to contemplate nature and history through a poetic lens. We become fellow-travelers with Stafford-Johnson as he winds his way up the West Coast on a watery pilgrimage. Any student of Sophiology will recognize in Ireland’s Wild Coast a perfect example of truly Sophianic art. As Michael Martin writes at the beginning of his essential text, The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Return to a Poetic Metaphysics:
For sophiology, especially as articulated from the 17th century onward, asks us to attend to the grace of God, his presence, in Creation: a presence which, despite the world’s fallenness, can only be described (in the words of Genesis) as “good.” (3)
That’s precisely the message that Stafford-Johnson most powerfully communicates. Not that the earth is in danger; not that wild animals live interesting and impressive lives; not even that Ireland has a unique and valuable ecosystem on its west coast. Nothing so pragmatic as that. Rather, we are left with the powerful sense of the goodness of creation. We are led to delight in it.
In watching the film—in rewatching it—in writing this piece—I am reminded not only of the lessons of latter-day sophiologists, but of that sophiologist malgré lui, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Specifically, the words of his great sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.”
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
No words so perfectly describe the Kestrel of Corcomroe as it hovers, hesitates, and then glides down with Pentecostal grace upon its unsuspecting prey.